What’s Left to Do About Damascus?

By: Judy Dempsey

BERLIN — So far, it is hard to fault the Europeans.

Since pro-democracy demonstrations began in Syria more than 10 months ago, the European Union has ratcheted up the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has imposed sanctions on Syrian oil companies. It has frozen the assets of several top officials. It has prohibited E.U. businesses from trading in Syrian state debt.

It has also banned Syria from having its own banks operate in E.U. countries or investing in European banks. This week, E.U. foreign ministers agreed to place travel and other restrictions on 22 more individuals and eight more companies.

But still the fighting continues. According to the United Nations, more than 5,000 people have been killed since the demonstrations began last March. Nearly 20,000 have fled to neighboring Turkey.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations said last week that the situation in Syria had “reached an unacceptable point.”

But what else can be done?

“The problem is that for all the measures by the Europeans, they have not forced the Syrian regime to take a different position,” said Rime Allaf, a Middle East specialist at the London-based research organization Chatham House. “If significantly tougher measures are not taken, then I expect nothing to change. There will be a further deterioration of the situation. At the moment, there are no other realistic scenarios.”

Faced with a similar situation in Libya last year, Britain, France and some other European countries opted for military intervention. With the help of the United States, they enforced a no-flight zone and bombed the regime’s troops, which precipitated the downfall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

This month, the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors trying to topple Mr. Assad, also asked the U.N. Security Council to intervene, but to no avail. But neither Mr. Ban nor any European leader has spoken out in support of military action to stop the killing.

There are several reasons for that. Russia, a longtime supporter of the Assad regime, and China — both permanent members of the Security Council — would veto any such move. Neither wants a NATO-style intervention in Syria.

Nor has the United States any appetite for another military mission. Without U.S. support, the European Union and NATO can do nothing militarily. In the region, only Qatar, a member of the Arab League, has called for military action.

On Jan. 15, the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, proposed an Arab military intervention to halt the crackdown by Syrian security forces. “Some troops should go to stop the killing,” he told CBS, a U.S. television network. He received no support from other Arab states, nor the European Union.

As it is, the Arab League is divided over Syria, and it has no experience of such intervention. The idea of Arab fighting Arab could have untold consequences for the region, according to analysts. They point to the rise of sectarianism in Iraq as a catastrophic example.

Moreover, the Arab League has lost much of its credibility after its monitoring mission in Syria failed to persuade the regime to abide by the League’s peace proposal, which Damascus initially accepted. That plan envisaged the withdrawal of tanks and troops from towns and cities, the release of protesters, access to the news media and the beginning of talks between Mr. Assad and the opposition.

Then, on Sunday, during a summit meeting in Cairo, the Arab League called for Mr. Assad to step down, open a dialogue with the opposition and form a national unity government. Damascus rejected the proposals.

But even though the Europeans have excluded the option of military action, there are measures they could take. Apart from applying more sanctions, they could step up humanitarian and intelligence assistance for the Syrian opposition, along the lines of Europe’s help last year for the Libyan rebels.

The Union could also target Mr. Assad’s supporters. Its proposal to impose a new batch of sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program could become crucial for Syria. Iran provides extensive military and economic assistance to Syria, and it supports the militant Hezbollah movement. Hezbollah has rallied behind Mr. Assad.

Finally, the Union could work more closely with Turkey, providing assistance for the refugees, and with Qatar.

“It’s being mooted among some European capitals about the E.U. establishing some kind of humanitarian aid corridor,” said Anthony Dworkin, a human rights expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Turkey and Qatar could support such measures, say their diplomats. Turkey is no novice in the region. It tried to mediate between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights after Israel captured them during the 1967 Middle East war. It also was one of the first countries to call on Mr. Assad to step down.

“Ankara feels betrayed by Damascus,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Turkey office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Ankara invested much energy in trying to persuade Assad to resign, but without any result.”

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is another one of those who do not support military intervention. He considers the risks too high.

Ankara is concerned that an intervention would bring in even more refugees. It could also encourage the Kurds in Syria to seek more autonomy. Mr. Unluhisarcikli says that could set off a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, where tensions between the government and the Kurdish community are already extremely high.

The NATO mission in Libya was complicated enough; it is still far from certain that after the military intervention and the downfall of Colonel Qaddafi, the country will manage to return to stability. Syria is a far more intractable case.

“When it comes to Syria, the Europeans are not being consistent, but they are trying to do as much as they can without a military intervention,” said Ms. Allaf of Chatham House.

But she has few illusions that that will be enough.

Source: New York Times

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