Time for the international community to act in Syria

Bashar al-Assad has made his choice - it is time for the international community to do the same.
Islam Qasem
8 August 2011

For almost four months now the Assad regime have been carrying out horrendous violations of human rights and crimes against the Syrian people: houses bulldozed, tanks in the streets, snipers on roof tops, rape, torture, and indiscriminate killing. The death toll is 2000 and rising.

Beyond condemnation of the violence the response of the international community, to say the least, has been disappointing. The courage world leaders have shown in the case of Libya is nowhere to be found in Syria. The most disgraceful response has come from the Arab League. In a statement the League Secretary General Nabil El Araby expressed “increasing concerns” over the security situation in Syria, but included a stern reminder that the League rejects any foreign intervention in Arab countries’ affairs. In a less shameful but reticent manner, western countries have condemned the violence and imposed a travelling ban and asset freeze on Bashar and key officials. But these measures are far too benign. When the deranged Gaddafi threatened to massacre protestors, European Union leaders condemned the man and called for a regime change. When Gaddafi acted on his threat, a UN resolution was passed, authorizing the use of “all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country.” With resolution 1973 in hand western powers did not hesitate to intervene militarily. The hunter became the hunted – Gaddafi went underground.

When it comes to Syria, the international community’s response to the brutality of the Syrian regime is incomprehensible. Unlike Gaddafi, western powers have perceived Bashar as a reformer, someone to win over from Iran, and perhaps to make peace with Israel. For a decade Bashar is capitalizing on this false perception and a distracted international community. Ten years into his reign Bashar has yet to show progress on domestic political and economic reforms or foreign policy. Syria remains inward-looking, stagnated, and rogue.

A regime change in Syria is not only good for Syrians but also for the international community. Syria is a key country in the Middle East with the potential to transform the political dynamic of the region. A democratic, moderate Syria will help stabilize Lebanon and Iraq, offer a new hope for peace between Arabs and Israelis, and further isolate Iran. These are tangible gains which cannot be attained under Bashar’s rule, but can be within reach if the international community were to act.  So what can be done at a time when military budgets are being slashed and the appetite for another Libya is lacking?

First, publicly and unequivocally demand that Bashar abdicates. Since the Syrian people have loudly and courageously taken to the streets to force Assad to step down, world leaders powers have every reason to support the transition from authoritarianism to democracy in Syria. This will undermine the legitimacy of Bashar in the international community, encourage reluctant countries to switch sides, and strengthen the will of protestors.

Second, impose tougher economic sanctions. Harsher and more comprehensive sanctions will intensify pressure on the regime. Syria’s economy has been riddled with structural difficulties; now it is in an even worse condition as the government has increased expenditures to assuage discontent while foreign investment and revenues from tourism have drastically declined. Even higher oil prices will do little to help Bashar, given Syria’s declining oil exports. Skeptics may object that sanctions are ineffective, especially since China and Russia are not on board. However, the truth of the matter is that Syria’s economic woes cannot be resolved by increasing dependence on China and Russia. Sanctions will make it more difficult for Syria’s Bashar to secure the badly needed foreign investments, technical assistance, and free trade agreements.

Three, support the opposition. Syrian opposition groups agree on the need for political change but lack a common united front and disagree on the means of change. A key dividing line is that activists in Syria are suspicious of opposition groups in exile and foreign interference. To some extent this mistrust is understandable, given that the Assad family have worked endlessly to keep opposition groups divided and nurture mistrust of foreign societies. But at this crucial hour the silence of the international community is counterproductive. NGOs, world leaders, and activists should reach out to the opposition inside Syria and help bring about a united Syrian opposition front.

Lastly, the effects of the above three measures cannot be maximized without the involvement of Turkey. The Turkish-Syrian honeymoon is over; the relationship between the two countries is badly damaged. Turkey has already strongly condemned the repression, but its position remains hesitant. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu said that Turkey would not close its embassy in Syria but would continue to monitor the situation closely. But waiting is not in Turkey’s best interests. If Syria were to descend into civil war, the security implications will in all likelihood draw Turkey into a military intervention. For Turkey, now is the right moment to act.

Today, the international community is confronted with the rare possibility of making a difference in the fate of a nation persecuted for demanding freedom from tyranny. The choice is between a democratic Syria, free from repression and isolation - or a Syria that continues to tread the road to becoming the North Korea of the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad has made his choice - it is time for the international community to do the same.

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