The European Union imposed sanctions Wednesday against the elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, saying the Quds Force is providing equipment and other support to help Syrian President Bashar Assad crush the 5-month-old uprising against him.
The sanctions broadened the international pressure against Syria by directly targeting its key ally Iran, which the U.S. and other nations have accused of aiding the crackdown.
The EU's official journal, which published the statement, said the Quds Force "has provided technical assistance, equipment and support to the Syrian security services to repress civilian protest movements."
Other new targets include several Syrian generals and close associates of Assad's younger brother, Maher, who is believed to be in command of much of the crackdown. Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister and special envoy for Bashar Assad, also was named.
The EU blacklist on Syria now contains 50 people and nine entities who face asset freezes and travel bans as punishment for one of the deadliest government crackdowns of the Arab Spring. Syria already is under broad sanctions from the U.S. and European countries, but calls for stricter measures have been on the rise.
Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in mid-March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.
Assad has shrugged off international condemnation and calls for him to step down, insisting that armed gang and thugs are driving the violence, not true reform-seekers. Economic and other sanctions could slowly chip away at the regime, however. Longtime ally Iran has offered unwavering support for Damascus, and there has been speculation that Tehran is providing funds to cushion Assad's government as it burns through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government had at the start of the uprising.
But Iran cannot prop up the regime indefinitely.
On Wednesday, French Foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero called for stronger sanctions. Paris is also pushing the U.N. Security Council to adopt punishing measures against Syria.
"France is determined more than ever to do everything to stop Syrian blood from being spilled," Valero said.
Despite the harsh words, the Syrian crackdown continued.
Tanks stormed the eastern city of Deir el-Zour and made sweeping arrests there Wednesday, according to Syrian activists. Deir el-Zour is an oil-rich but impoverished region known for its well-armed clans and tribes whose ties extend across eastern Syria and into Iraq.
On Tuesday, European nations and the U.S. circulated a draft U.N. Security Council resolution seeking an arms embargo and other sanctions.
Syria has banned foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to independently confirm events on the ground. While widespread witness accounts and amateur video footage describe a brutal crackdown by security forces, Syria's state-run news agency says security forces are the real victims of gunmen and extremists.
On Wednesday, the official news agency, SANA, released gruesome pictures of 14 decomposing corpses, saying "armed terrorist groups" kidnapped and tortured them in recent days and dumped their bodies around Homs, a city in central Syria that has been a hotbed of protests.
Assad has exploited fears of chaos in Syria, with the regime portraying him as the only man who can guarantee peace in a country with a potentially volatile mix of religious groups.
The opposition, however, says the protest movement is free of sectarian overtones and is simply demanding freedom and democracy. The opposition took steps toward forming a national council Tuesday, but serious divisions have prevented them from presenting a unified front.
Associated Press writers Don Melvin in Brussels and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed to this report.