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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Inhuman Syrian violence during Ramadan corners Assad internationally

Members of a pro-Islamic human rights group and Syrians living in Turkey gather, one holding a placard that reads “we did not forget Hama” as they stage a protest against the Syrian regime in Ankara. (AP Photo)
Members of a pro-Islamic human rights group and Syrians living in Turkey gather, one holding a placard that reads “we did not forget Hama” as they stage a protest against the Syrian regime in Ankara. (AP Photo)
Syrian president Bashar Al Assad may have shot himself in his own foot this weekend.

The acceleration of his brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters demanding his resignation is bringing the United States and Europe closer together with Russia and possibly China, and could result in the first broad-based international condemnation of his actions since demonstrations erupted five months ago.
For months the United States and Europe have been unsuccessfully urging Russia and China who officially said they were coordinating their rejection to United Nations condemnation of the Syrian violence to reverse their positions.

Mr. Assad’s killing of some 150 people in 24 hours in Hama, Syria’s third largest cities, and other towns, is succeeding in narrowing that gap where diplomats have failed.

As a result, the United Nations Security Council was scheduled to meet late Monday to discuss the escalating violence in Syria.

The Foreign Ministry in Moscow, an a sign that Russian opposition to some form of UN action may be thawing, put out on Monday its toughest statement yet on Syria, saying the use of force against civilians was “unacceptable” and “should be stopped.” The statement reversed an earlier Russian refusal to speak on what officials said was a domestic matter.

China has yet to comment on the deteriorating situation in Syria but is unlikely to block UN condemnation of Syria if Russia endorses it.

Like Russia, China has opposed UN condemnation to prevent Syria from becoming another Libya and because Mr. Assad serves as a useful tool to obstruct Western influence in the Middle East and North Africa.

Both Russia and China have until now also rejected Western efforts to get UN condemnation of Syria as a response to what they see as NATO violations of the Security Council resolution authorizing enforcement of a non-fly zone in Libya.

Western nations have interpreted the no-fly zone designed to protect civilians against the attacks of Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s forces as a license to attempt to remove the Libyan leader from office.

Russian officials suggest that this weekend’s violence could persuade them to drop their opposition to UN condemnation of Syria provided the draft resolution makes no reference to regime change or possible military intervention.

That suits the United States and Europe, which were quick to condemn the latest violence in Syria in stark terms but have made clear that they have no desire to back up their words with military force.

The European Union on Monday went a step further by adding five names to its list of 34 officials, that include Mr. Assad, whose assets have been frozen and who are banned from travelling to EU countries because of their involvement or association with the president’s crackdown. The EU said it would publish the names on Tuesday.

The narrowing of the differences between Western nations, Russia and China is unlikely to immediately force Mr. Assad to halt the crackdown.

It does however signal that the brutality of his crackdown is increasingly driving him into a corner. This weekend’s stepped up violence suggests that he is crossing a red line.
Divisions between the world’s major powers so far rendered the international community impotent and sent Mr. Assad the message that he was effectively free to do whatever he deemed necessary to squash the five month old protests.

US and European condemnations and sanctions weren’t worth much more than the paper they were written on because they had no real teeth. A Security Council resolution condemning Syria won’t have teeth either but tells Mr. Assad that even his staunchest non-Middle Eastern allies are finding his brutality increasingly hard to stomach and is pushing them to take a more critical stand.

To be sure, Mr. Assad doesn’t have to really worry about Russia’s willingness to join the club of empty words rather than actions as long as Moscow conducts business with Syria as usual.

Russian condemnations don’t mean much as long as organizations like the Russian Association of Friendship With Syria hold meetings in Damascus at the very moment that Syrian troops kill peaceful demonstrators.

Russian officials defend such gathering as well as continued arms sales to Syria as legal and argue that a breaking off of contacts and an imposition of a moratorium on arms dealings would further destabilize the situation in Syria. Russia, Syria’s main arms supplier, recently sold it 72 cruise missiles for $300 million.

Russia is a long way from halting arms sales but its willingness to entertain for the first time UN condemnation indicates that its patience too is being put to the test by Mr. Assad.

The protesters’ resilience in facing down Mr. Assad’s brutality has effectively rendered his crackdown a failure and created a no-win situation for the Syrian leader.

Russia’s condemnation of the latest violence in Syria and its willingness to entertain a UN resolution means that he increasingly may be being cornered no longer exclusively at home but also internationally.

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