European Union's Syria sanctions appear to take direct aim at wealthy classes loyal to Bashar Assad

From left to right, Luxembourg Foreign Affairs Minister Jean Asselborn, General-Secretary for European Union external Affairs Pierre Vimont, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Sakari Tuomioja, Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt and Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic talk prior to a Foreign Affairs Council meeting April 23, 2012, in Luxembourg. AFP/Getty Images

(AP) LUXEMBOURG - The European Union on Monday banned the sale of luxury goods and products to Syria that can have military as well as civilian uses as the U.N. political chief demanded that the Syrian government stop using heavy weapons and comply with a cease-fire.

B. Lynn Pascoe told the U.N. Security Council in New York that the cease-fire, which went into effect on April 12, remains "incomplete" and "human rights violations are still perpetrated with impunity." He said Syria has also failed to fully implement international envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, saying the government's compliance with requirements to release detainees and allow peaceful demonstrations "are clearly insufficient."

The EU ban on luxury items appears to take direct aim at some of Syrian President Bashar Assad's most loyal supporters: the business community and prosperous merchant classes that are key to propping up the regime. An influential bloc, the business leaders have long traded political freedoms for economic privileges in Syria.

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So far, the wealthy classes have stuck to the sidelines, but if the economic squeeze reaches them, it could be a game changer, analysts say.

Assad, who inherited power in 2000, spent years shifting the country away from the socialism espoused by his father. In the process, he helped boost a new and vibrant merchant class that transformed Syria's economic landscape even as the regime's political trappings remained unchanged.

Emails purportedly from Assad and his wife Asma, published in February by London's Guardian newspaper, indicated that the Syrian first lady has a taste for the finer things in life. The emails, whose authenticity has been questioned, revealed the first lady shopping online for crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin stilettos, expensive jewelry, custom-made furniture and other luxury goods as violence swept the country.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the EU's 27 foreign ministers approved the new set of sanctions — the 14th in the past year — "because of deep concern about the situation and continuing violence in spite of the cease-fire."

"We expect the government to withdraw all troops and heavy weapons from towns and cities (and) we want to make sure that the regime gives full access to humanitarian organizations."

The U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed since an uprising against the government of Assad began 13 months ago.

Pascoe, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, told the Security Council "we are at a pivotal moment in Syria."

He said the U.N. hopes the deployment of 300 unarmed U.N. military observers, which the Security Council authorized on Saturday, "will help to stop the killing and consolidate the calm" with the aim of creating the conditions "for a serious and credible political process."

To create these conditions, Pascoe said, "it is essential that the government of Syria fully and immediately implement its obligations to stop using heavy weapons and to pull back military forces from population centers."

He said it is also essential that Syria implement other aspects of the Annan plan, noting "little progress" on its requirement to allow unimpeded access for aid workers to an estimated 1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

He said Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, will brief the Security Council on Tuesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters late Monday that it is "absolutely important" that Syria protect the monitors and ensure their freedom of access and freedom of movement. There must be "no such obstacles," he stressed.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, again urged the Syrian government "to seize this chance for a peaceful political solution to the crisis — before it's too late."

The U.S. welcomes "the positive statements from various Syrian opposition figures and groups" about the expanded U.N. observer mission, she said, "but we are all sober in our expectations."

"The Syrian regime should make no mistake: we will be watching its actions day and night," Rice said. "We will work to ensure there will be consequences should the Syrian regime continue to ignore this Council's decisions, press ahead with its murderous rampage, and flout the will of the international community."

Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari strongly criticized Qatar, saying its leader didn't believe that the Annan mission would succeed. Ja'afari accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of financing "terrorist groups," which the Syrian government blame for the violence.

Previous rounds of U.S. and EU sanctions have done little to stop the bloodshed, although there are signs the Syrian economy is suffering. International measures against Assad's regime have depleted its foreign currency reserves by half, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said last week.

EU experts will work out later precisely which goods will be included in the new embargo. One of the diplomats said so-called "dual-use" goods can include anything from vehicles to fertilizers and other chemicals.

The only precedent in international relations for the luxury ban is one imposed by the EU in 2007 on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Officials said this could serve as a model for the same measure against Syria. That ban included foods such as caviar and truffles, high-quality wines and spirits, fashion accessories including bags and shoes, perfumes, crystal and silverware, and purebred horses.

"We need to continue to intensify pressure on the Assad regime," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "They are not in complete compliance with the cease-fire provisions of the Annan plan."

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