Failure to act on Syria is 'licence to kill': analysts

26th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

After moving swiftly to sanction repression in Libya, the world has hesitated to act against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in fear of tipping the delicate Middle East power balance, analysts say.

"This hesitation on Syria is giving the wrong message to the regime," said Nadim Shehadi of the London-based Chatham House think-tank. "The longer the world is indecisive, the more the regime thinks it has a licence to kill."

As heavily armed troops fired live rounds at pro-democracy protesters in the Syrian town of Daraa for a second day, bringing the death toll to close to 400 since March 15, the United States, Britain and France began to up the pressure on Assad.

"There is an emerging appetite to consider restrictive measures, there are conversations, there may be talks this week," said an EU diplomat who asked to remain anonymous.

Britain said Tuesday it was working with Washington and the European Union to send a "strong signal" to Syria as diplomats reported that London, Paris, Berlin and Lisbon were seeking a UN condemnation of the brutal crackdown.

Saying Syria was "at a fork in the road", British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday warned that if Damascus chose ever more violent repression rather than the road of reform, "we will work with our European partners and others to take measures, including sanctions, that will have an impact on the regime."

Yet barely three days earlier, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton offered assistance from the 27-nation bloc for "a genuine reform process in Syria."

Analysts say the slow international response to the killings in Syria stem from a general failure to understand the breadth of democratic aspirations across the Arab world, as well as from misperceptions over Syria's role as a regional powerbroker.

"The Arab revolts came at a time when the EU and the United States had given up on democracy and merely wanted to do business with Arab states," said Shehadi. "And Western policy-makers, already traumatised by the Iraqi syndrome, now also face a Libya syndrome."

"Events are simply moving too fast for the bureaucrats," he added.

While the West continued to consider Assad essential to regional stability, he had in reality helped destabilise Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories, Shehadi said.

"Should Assad go, the Middle East would be a much better place," he said. "Syria's role as a stabilising force has gone."

"The moment Assad goes, there will be an agreement between Hamas and Fatah," Shehadi said, referring to the feuding Palestinian factions.

In Syria, said the head of the EU Institute for Security Studies, Alvaro de Vasconcelos, "Washington was particularly concerned not to legitimise the regime by being seen as interfering in domestic affairs."

"Given the brutality of the repression, this prudence is now meaningless."

While the United States has few economic ties with Syria, the EU should suspend cooperation with the regime, said de Vasconcelos.

The Middle East spokesman for Human Rights Watch, Nadim Houry, added that despite longstanding international commitments to respect human rights, the issue of rights had consistently been considered secondary -- and often an irritant -- in world diplomacy.

International response to repression in Iran had been far louder than currently in Syria, "showing the world's double-standards", he said.

"Now we have an opportunity for people to push for a more principled diplomacy in the region, where people are yearning for the same values upheld by Europe," he said.

"It's time for fortress Europe to act," he said.

Human Rights Watch believed the very least was for the EU and US to slap sanctions on Syrian officials linked to rights abuse and agree to an international investigation into the deaths in Syria.

"The regime has fallen," said Shehadi. "Now it's a matter of time and cost, and the more the hesitation from the West the more costly it will be in human lives."

© 2011 AFP

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