Rhetoric alone will not ease Syria's suffering

Bashar Al Assad keeps saying the violence is over. Then his soldiers kill more Syrians. Now the world is speaking out. But words must be accompanied by smart sanctions.

If there has been one constant throughout the unrest that has engulfed Syria in recent months it has been the back-tracking of President Bashar Al Assad.

Each time he has pledged moderation his actions have betrayed his true intentions. Saturday was the latest example.

Just two days after Mr Al Assad told the UN that Syria's army "had stopped" its violent campaign against demonstrators, over a dozen more people were gunned down at the weekend. Given the lack of easy options for intervening in this onslaught the world might have hoped Syria's president was serious this time. Now that it's clear he wasn't, governments near and far must act decisively and in unison.

The United States and the Europe Union have sought to do this by piling on the diplomatic pressure. On Thursday the US president, Barack Obama, did what many had hoped he would have done weeks ago in calling for Mr Al Assad "to step aside".

Regional states have also spoken up. Turkey has led the rhetorical condemnation, while Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors. But as James Zogby argues on our Comment page today, Arab calls for violence to cease could be louder.

Yet it will take more than talk to end Syria's bloody crackdown.

The European Union is contemplating tough new sanctions targeting Syria's small but economically critical oil sector. Cutting off this economic engine will cause all Syrians pain.

But given that the EU accounts for an estimated 95 per cent of Syria's crude exports - and exports make up as much as 30 per cent of its state budget - a heavy sanctions campaign in this sector may be most effective.

Of course sanctions are only as strong as their weakest link. Several countries both regionally and globally have shown a reluctance to join in this chorus of condemnation. One of those surprisingly is Turkey. Ankara may have more to lose than most in angering Damascus, but such a campaign can not succeed without Turkey fully on board.

A Syrian opposition is beginning to emerge, offering an alternative narrative to the street. One such coalition is scheduled to meet in Istanbul today. As with rebels in Libya, caution is needed when supporting groups that emerge in times of chaos. But they deserve a platform to be heard.

Words alone won't end Syria's struggle. But despite Mr Al Assad's obfuscation, neither will empty promises.

Published: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM


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