Options for action on Assad's bloody response are limited

Thu, Feb 9, 2012, 00:00

EUROPEAN DIARY:Europe is likely to step up sanctions against Syria this month, writes ARTHUR BEESLEY

SYRIA’S BRUTAL crackdown on the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad advances by the day. As casualties mount, concern intensifies that the bloodshed could continue for months.

“We’re facing a wall and we have to find a way of climbing over that wall and moving ahead. That’s what we’re doing,” says a senior diplomat in Brussels, who declines to be named.

Assad’s bloody response to the 11-month revolt presents a growing challenge to Europe and the world. More than 6,000 people have died and many others have been detained, tortured and abducted.

With military action by the western powers ruled out and a UN Security Council resolution vetoed by Russia and China, the limits of political and diplomatic action are plain to see.

European and American sanctions have been in place for months, some ambassadors have been recalled, and the smiling dictator himself is now a global pariah. Yet still he will not yield.

“You’re asking me: is this going to drag on? I don’t know, but I fear,” the diplomat says.

“If you still have the regime in Damascus that is refusing to go into anything that looks like an end of violence and the start of a political process – as requested by the Arab League and a lot of countries in the international community – we are facing a major problem.”

Europe is likely to step up sanctions this month with a freeze on the assets of the Syrian central bank and a ban on the importation of phosphates and gold. This is in addition to an oil ban, travel bans on regime chiefs and the freezing of other assets.

However, the suggestion of a ban on commercial flights to and from the country is being resisted. The same goes for a mooted mass recall of European ambassadors, which was rejected by member states on Tuesday even though France, Italy, Britain and other countries have either withdrawn their top diplomats or called them home for consultations.

The dominant view remains that it is better to maintain a presence in Damascus, the objective being to deepen contacts with rebel factions and to keep a closer eye on events on the ground.

If the rhetoric suggests all of this will eventually tighten the noose around Assad, the anxiety remains that the violence will lead to all-out civil war in the country.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov returned from a trip to Damascus two days ago, saying Assad had promised to implement reforms and bring a halt to the crackdown.

No one believes that, however. “I recall my Turkish colleague telling me that he had spent six hours with Bashar to convince him, and then the next day there were 100 dead,” said French foreign minister Alain Juppé.

What can be done? There’s talk in Paris and Brussels of mobilising the “Friends of Syria” contact group of western powers, Arab states and EU countries. One objective here would be to support the opposition and an Arab League reform plan.

Another would be to press Russia to rethink its security council veto. A further suggestion, promoted by EU foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, is to set up a group of regional and global organisations such as the UN, the Arab League, the Islamic Confederation and the EU. This would work like the “Cairo Group” that oversaw some of the international politicking around the rebellion in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak.

In question, too, is whether a suspended Arab League observation mission is revived or fully withdrawn. All of that, however, is the realm of moral pressure, to which Assad is immune.

Looming over this unhappy panorama is the anxiety that any formal move to arm the rebels would further the drift to civil war. At the same time, the prospect of military intervention along the lines of the Libyan campaign is such a no-no in the Arab world that western diplomats are loath to utter the name “Nato” in certain company. That includes the Russians and Chinese, who are said to demonstrate “certain emotions and reservations” at the very mention of Libya.

Much of this has its roots in the instinctive distaste at the very notion of a “regime change” operation, a legacy of the Iraq invasion. Moreover, Syria’s location in the Middle East cauldron presents a host of tricky questions that did not arise at the time of the Libyan intervention.

“We are left with very few options other than sanctions on one side, humanitarian assistance on the other side and otherwise contingency planning,” says the European diplomat.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re not being active in political and diplomatic terms, but you need two to tango and if the other side doesn’t respond, you’re left with very few choices.”