Force not the answer for Syria

The turmoil in Syria is not getting the attention it deserves from the world media despite the rising death toll there. Libya’s civil war and the deteriorating situation in Yemen have overshadowed the gravity of the Syrian scene. Since March 18, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets, more than 200 people have been killed. There may not yet be bloodletting of Libyan proportions, but the Baathist regime has been no less ruthless, with government partisans and policemen firing from rooftops on unarmed civilian protesters.

The Syria chapter of the Baathist regime has been in power now for five decades, and it has survived because it has perpetuated itself by means more ruthless than those employed by the Iraq party, which collapsed in April 2003 because of the U.S.-led invasion. Let there be no mistake — Bashar Assad can prove more cruel than Moammar Gadhafi.

Syria’s strategic position and the fact that it is considered Israel’s most implacable enemy rule out either a full-fledged foreign invasion or a UN-authorized NATO intervention of the kind in Libya. The NATO strikes are already controversial, with the Arab League criticizing the Atlantic alliance’s air missions, having itself earlier called for imposing a no-fly zone.

An intervention of that kind in Syria would be enormously risky, open to misgivings as to its motives and considered by most Arab and Muslim people as being done for Israel’s benefit. This could serve to strengthen the Baathist regime and help it crush the pro-democracy protesters by branding them as foreign agents. In fact, the regime is already labelling them as such. This is perhaps why the Arab League has maintained a discreet silence on the Syrian situation.

It is now time for President Assad to wake up. Force failed to save Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Yemen’s President Ali Saleh appears desperate. The least the Syrian president can do is to implement the promised reforms, including the lifting of the 1963 emergency.

Failing to concede something to the democracy activists will only lead to more bloodshed and make his own position more vulnerable.

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