Beirut: The European Union banned oil imports from Syria on Friday in a move that will cost the embattled regime millions of dollars each day as it tries to crush a resilient uprising that has railed against the country`s authoritarian government for more than five months.
President Bashar Assad`s assault on protests continued, killing at least 13 people, activists said. Security forces fired on thousands of anti-government protesters and surrounded mosques to prevent worshippers from streaming into the streets to join the rallies.
The UN estimates some 2,200 people have been killed since March as protesters take to the streets every week, despite the near-certainty that they will face a barrage of bullets and sniper fire. But the regime is in no imminent danger of collapse, leading to concerns violence will escalate.
On Friday, Syrian protesters marched under the slogan "Death Rather Than Humiliation" — reflecting a growing frustration among activists that their largely peaceful gatherings have failed to crack the regime.
Recent weeks have seen a subtle change in tone among some protesters who are calling on Syrians to take up arms and inviting foreign military action like the intervention that helped topple the Libyan government.
Although the calls to arms are not widespread, there are fears that a prolonged stalemate could serve to radicalise the movement and lead to more bloodshed.
The EU oil ban follows other international sanctions and worldwide reproach, although Assad has brushed off the condemnation as foreign meddling. The oil embargo is significant because Damascus gets about 28 percent of its revenue from the oil trade and sells fuel to France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
Syria exports some 150,000 barrels of oil per day, with the vast majority going to the European Union.
European Union trade spokesman, John Clancy, said Syria earned EUR 3.1 billion (USD 4.4 billion) by selling oil to the EU in 2010. Oil from Syria amounted to 1.5 percent of EU`s total crude oil imports that year.
"The impact of the ban in terms of EU oil supply is very minimal, but the impact on the financing of the Syrian regime is quite substantial," Clancy said.
Without that revenue, Syria will likely burn far more quickly through the USD 17 billion in foreign reserves it had at the start of the uprising. Still, some analysts believe Syria is getting financial assistance from Iran, which would cushion the EU blow.
"There is little evidence to suggest that sanctions will be enough to end the violence and force sincere political reform," according to a briefing this week by Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company.
"Although the EU embargo could hit the regime hard ... Assad will continue to rely on financial support from Iran," the briefing said.
Asia also could present a new market for the oil as China has close ties to Damascus.
The EU ban covers the purchase, import and transport of oil and other petroleum products from Syria. The EU also has banned European banks from opening credit lines for such sales, and prohibited insurance companies from insuring the cargos.
In addition to the oil ban, four more Syrian individuals and three entities were added to a list of those facing an EU asset freeze and travel ban.
Over the past few months, the EU has imposed travel bans and asset freezes against 35 Syrian government officials and military and police commanders, including Assad himself. Other countries, including the US, also have imposed sanctions but Syria`s business with those nations was limited.
The EU has in the past been reluctant to ban Syrian oil and gas imports for fear of the impact on the Syrian public and small businesses.
Explaining the shift, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe explained that EU nations were hoping the oil ban would send an unmistakable message that "the behaviour of the Syrian regime has been unacceptable”.
"We cannot accept such brutal repression against the aspirations of the people," he said during a visit to Poland.
The EU oil embargo will bring the 27-nation bloc in line with the latest US moves to isolate Assad`s regime, including a ban on the import of petroleum or related products.
The embargo takes effect on Saturday, but existing contracts can be fulfilled until November 15.
Some EU nations have been lobbying for other sectors to be added to the sanctions regime, including telecommunications and banking.
Also on Friday, Syrian troops fanned out in cities including Homs in central Syria, Daraa in the south and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syria has banned foreign journalists and restricted local coverage, making it difficult to independently confirm events on the ground.
The government blames the unrest on armed gangs, not true reform-seekers, despite widespread witness accounts of largely peaceful protesters facing a military assault.
Witnesses and activists said the largest turnout Friday was in Homs, where a funeral turned into a massive anti-government demonstration. Thousands of people were taking part, calling for the regime`s downfall and for Assad`s execution, activists said.
Most of Friday`s 13 deaths were in the Damascus suburb of Arbeen and nearby areas, according to the observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another prominent activist group with a network of sources on the ground.