Report Europe – Syria

No one lifts a finger to stop Assad

How to oppose the massacres in Syria? While the question grows more pressing by the day, the West, and Europe in particular, seems indecisive and helpless. Is it because conditions have changed following the intervention in Libya.

Published on 16 February 2012 at 15:16

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-->February 8. A two-year old boy lies on an operating table at a hospital in Homs besieged by the forces of President Assad. He is dead. The house where he lived with his parents was hit by a government shell. “What is the UN still waiting for? For all the children and women of the city to die?” The images posted on YouTube, with commentary by Danny Abdul Dayem, a British citizen born in Syria, are shocking. “Dead bodies on the asphalt, bits of people scattered everywhere. Why is no one helping us? Where is the world’s humanity? Where the hell is the UN?” he asks desperately. For 11 months, Assad’s forces have repressed citizens’ demonstrations with an industrial efficiency. The number of civilian casualties has gone past 5,000.

A recent UN Security Council resolution that demanded an immediate end to the violence, though, was blocked by Russia and China. Increasingly, international public opinion appears split between two positions.

On one side are those advocating international intervention under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or R2P, adopted in 2005 by the UN General Assembly. This doctrine gives the international community the right to intervene, by peaceful or military means, when a state commits crimes against humanity under the cover of national sovereignty. In Syria’s case, it would mean the Arab League and Turkey, with the support of NATO, establishing a buffer zone free of government forces to protect the rebels.

On the other side of the argument stand the voices of prudence. Their argument is that Syria is not Libya and that the conditions on the ground that made NATO’s Libya operations succeed are absent in Syria. The opposition in Syria is much smaller and more fragmented, and there are no “borders” between the two camps that can be secured by air forces, as happened outside Benghazi. The fact that executions in Syria are occuring in densely populated urban areas further complicates matters.

Russia most aggressive defender of Assad regime

But who in the West is still tempted to support a fresh intervention in the Arab world? At the time of the revolt in Libya, a debate on the collapse of the euro was still in the realm of science fiction; today it is very much reality. And then, it is unlikely that, in an election year, and with their domestic economies in a bad way, the leaders of the United States and France would show the same enthusiasm.

Not only that, but the Franco-British Entente Cordiale seems to have broken down following the doomsday EU summit in December, when the “City of London” was forced to jump off the integration train under pressure from the French ally. Might Germany rediscover an interventionalist calling? That would certainly be the surprise of the year.

In recent months, Russia has been the world’s most aggressive defender of the Assad regime’s interests. “It may be because Syria hosts the sole Russian naval base outside of the former USSR,” explains Dmitry Gorenburg, of the Davis Center in Harvard. That base, in Tartus, is a Russian bridgehead in the Middle East, essential for supplying Russian ships passing through the Mediterranean. And crimes against human rights have not deterred Russia from supplying arms to Syria. In 2010, Damascus bought nearly 6 percent of all Russian arms sold, while Russian investments in natural-gas drilling in Syria come to nearly 20 billion dollars.

Finally, a spark in Syria could ignite an powder keg that would end up exporting civil war around the region, to Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. And American memories of Iraq are fresh enough to keep them out of any new adventures in the Levant.

European diplomacy

Ashton hits bottom

Obsessed with the euro crisis, Europe is incapable of taking any action over the situation in Syria – final proof of “the failure of European foreign policy, theoretically reinforced by the Lisbon Treaty”, says international politics analyst José María de Areliza in the pages of the Spanish daily ABC. According to Areliza -

... the Arab Spring offers several case studies on the shrinking effectiveness of European action, which is based on a power of attraction, or soft power. Up against the killings in Libya or the civil war in Syria, that power is useless.

Areliza criticises, in particular, the role of Catherine Ashton. According to the researcher, the High Representative for External Affairs of the EU has -

... hit bottom, which seemed a difficult feat. But she pulled it off, by negotiating an agreement that left the actions of her foreign service depend on bureaucratic authorisations from the three commissioners who are openly competing with her within the EU executive.

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