EU backs Syrian opposition, ponders new sanctions

The European Union is reaching out to the nascent Syrian opposition movement to see if it could play an instrumental role in ousting President Bashar Assad, whose crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has so far killed nearly 3,000 people.

Diplomats said Syria's opposition needs more work to become an effective political force and gain formal recognition as a legal representative of the Syrian people. Still, some drew comparisons to European backing of Libya's National Transitional Council, the rebel-led group that overthrew strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

"I believe we have to get to know them better and get to know their intentions," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said of the Syrians after the 27 EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg and discussed the worsening situation in the Arab nation.

Earlier in the day, Syrian opposition members, including representatives of the newly formed Syrian National Council, said they had agreed on a democratic framework for a future nation and that they want international observers to be allowed into the Arab state to examine the situation there.

Ghied Al Hashmy, a political scientist who participated in a conference in Sweden of Syrian opposition members, including council representatives, said they oppose military intervention but want more political pressure on Syria, such as the targeted economic sanctions the EU has been applying.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the bloc is planning to expand action against Syria. A third round of measures will be necessary, she said, especially after Assad's "disappointing" speech over the weekend in which he criticized alleged foreign intervention in the country.

An official said last week that Syria's largest commercial bank will be targeted in any new sanctions. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The uprising against Assad began in mid-March amid a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Assad has reacted with deadly force that the U.N. estimates has left some 2,900 people dead.

The Syrian National Council is a broad-based group which includes most major opposition factions.<

No country or international body has yet recognized it as a legal representative of the Syrian people, and on Sunday Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem threatened "tough measures" against any country that does.

Ashton said giving the group formal recognition must involve a careful process.

"If I just take the situation that happened in Libya, we talked with a number of people on a number of occasions," she said. "Member states began to consider whether, for all sorts of reasons, it was a good move to recognize them. A similar process will happen.

"It's a big step to recognize, and we will take it only when we're clear that it's the right thing to do."

Abdulbaset Sieda, a member of the Syrian National Council, told reporters in Stockholm that Assad's regime fears the new opposition group because it has "good contacts with the Arab world and our friends in the West."

Sieda dismissed the idea that the opposition is divided, although he acknowledged they had a variety of views on how to achieve their goals.

"We will fight together against the regime because all of us agree that this regime belongs to the past," he said. "There are just some different opinions about the mechanism — in what way this should be done, and that we discussed here in Stockholm."

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