Friday, 19 August 2011
Posted by Taufiq Rahim | 4:46 pm
“Perhaps in the beginning (2000 and 2001) we moved too fast in opening up the country and people took advantage of that. . . . We are in a dangerous region and have to consider many things. We will make democratic reform but only at our own pace.”
These words were spoken by Syrian President Bashar Assad when I pressed him (as part of a delegation from Harvard) in 2008 on the role of political reform in building an open society. He was then, as he has demonstrated quite violently now, stubborn and resistant to what he saw as change beyond his own pace.
Today, Assad has effectively doubled down on a strategy of death and destruction to intimidate the opposition to his rule that has engulfed Syria. Despite the mounting death toll, the reaction from the international community — including Canada — has been far too little and much too late. While disjointed calls for condemnation have reverberated in Western capitals, there has yet to be a consolidated and, more important, effective initiative to bring about a resolution to the crisis.
It was in mid-March when the situation truly began to unravel in Syria. On March 18, demonstrations in the southern city of Dara’a led to four deaths. Since then, successive cities have seen protestors marching against the regime. The president himself has appeared deaf to the voices of opposition, instead blaming the unrest on “armed gangs” and “terrorists.”
The response of Assad’s government has been both incompetent and brutal and there has been too much blood spilled on the streets of Hama, Latakia, Homs, Deir el-Zour and elsewhere, including Damascus, for the country to return to the old political system. The result has been more than 2,000 deaths, the imprisonment of thousands more and the displacement of countless others. There exists the real prospect of a large-scale massacre in the near future.
The reaction of the international community, while high on bombast, has been anemic in action. Canada has scaled up its basic sanctions against the country but has not downgraded its trade or diplomatic relations, nor has it threatened to pull out of the $1.2 billion Petro-Canada/Suncor Ebla gas project, one of the largest foreign investments in Syria.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared initially that Bashar Assad had “lost legitimacy,” as did Foreign Secretary William Hague in London; President Obama raised the rhetoric on Thursday, demanding that Assad step aside but, while important, this likely will have a limited effect on Damascus. There have also been disparate statements of condemnation from within the Middle East, particularly from Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, but this has not resulted in much beyond headlines. Meanwhile, the United Nations and other international institutions have dithered.
Much more can and should be done, by the international community — including Canada. What is needed first is an international coalition that is ready to use non-military but robust actions to pressure the Syrian regime into ceasing all violence and entering into a process of political transition. The impetus for this has to be a high-level summit of interested states, including countries from Western Europe and North America but also Turkey, members of the Arab League and, in particular, Jordan and other neighbours, and quite possibly Russia or China.
A starting point must be an overall arms embargo on Syria. Just this past week Russian arms exporters were stating that they will continue their shipments to Damascus as usual.
Second, the UN Human Rights Council should immediately dispatch a monitoring body to protect against further harm to the civilian population.
Third, a high-level envoy, perhaps with the stature of Lakhdar Brahimi, could be appointed by the UN secretary-general to at least present a framework for political transition and help mediate a resolution. Up to now there has been no focal point for international energies and initiatives.
Finally, Canada and other like-minded nations should mobilize to draft an opt-in set of sanctions against Syrian oil exports to limit the cash reserves that Assad is using to finance his crackdown.
There are indeed practical steps that can be taken to build momentum toward resolving the crisis in Syria but they will not materialize without leadership from within the international community. Until now and perhaps in fear of the stalemate in Libya, countries have shied away from a more active role.
The situation in Syria, however, does not require military action but it does demand a level of assertiveness and cooperation from the international community, including Canada, to bring about peace and stability.
Taufiq Rahim is a political analyst based in Dubai and blogs regularly on TheGeopolitico.com. He has visited Syria frequently.