Support Ankara against Assad

17 June 2011

Less than one hour’s flight time from the EU, over the last four months, a tyrant has been waging war on his people. Hundreds of civilians have been arrested, tortured, raped, executed, and bombarded by the troops of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and these atrocities have been greeted by near total silence or even indifference on the part of the rest of the world. Europe has of course imposed sanctions – travel restrictions on Syrian leaders, an embargo on arms sales and the suspension of economic aid – which have had no impact whatsoever. A handful of leaders, like Britain’s David Cameron, have demanded that the Syrian regime refrain from violence, but without issuing any real threats. As for intellectuals in Europe, their demand that the EU take action "to end the massacre in Syria" has yet to prompt a mobilisation like the one we saw for Libya.

However, there is now greater justification for intervention in Syria than there was for action against the Libyan regime:  it is not simply a matter of protecting a civilian population against the threat of military force – as it was for the city of Benghazi when the UN authorised the use of air strikes – in Syria, military force has been used against civilians for quite some time.

The question is: why has the EU not adopted a firmer line? Could it be that we have yet to see a sufficient number of images to arouse the necessary indignation to fuel such a reaction? There may be some substance to this argument. However, it is no coincidence that the source of the sternest – and the most credible – demands for an end to the violence and democratic reforms has been Turkey. News of the conflict has come from the thousands of Syrian refugees forced to flee the fighting who are massing on the Turkish border. And their accounts of events in Syria are all the more precious, because the regime in Damas is refusing to allow representatives of the international media or independent observers to enter the country.

At the same time, there is an awareness that we simply do not have the means to force Assad to put an end to the repression. Without a diplomatic consensus – that is to say without the agreement of Beijing and Moscow, which are both opposed to any form of intervention – there is no possibility that the UN Security Council will adopt an effective resolution against the Syrian regime. So a repeat of the Libyan scenario is out of the question. At the same time, the limited effect of economic sanctions – the EU is Syria’s main trading partner and financial backer – has already been demonstrated. The sole remaining option is diplomacy. And in this field if the Europe does not carry sufficient weight to influence the Syrian regime, it should make a more determined effort to support initiatives proposed by Ankara, which remains a key ally in a region where the EU has yet to find its place.