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A tunnel of isolation
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 05 - 2011

The Syrian leadership's decision to suppress peaceful demonstrations in the country has cost it its regional and international role, leading Syria into political and economic isolation, says Bassel Oudat in Damascus
For over six weeks, the number of peaceful demonstrations in Syria has been rising, but at the same time the determination of the country's leaders to use force against protesters calling for freedom and political reform has also been increasing, leading the country into a tunnel of isolation and a political impasse. The authorities have thus far rejected dialogue with both the country's opposition parties and the demonstrators.
However, despite the deployment of tanks and armoured vehicles on the outskirts of many Syrian cities and a heavy security presence in residential districts and warnings from the ministry of the interior that the law "will be enforced" against anyone participating in demonstrations, people took to the streets in more than 20 Syrian cities last week on what was called the "Friday of Rage".
The protests were in support of the people of the southern Syrian town of Daraa, who have been under siege for more than ten days without electricity, water or communication with the outside world. More than 65 protesters were shot by security forces across Syria last week in the demonstrations, bringing the number of those killed since the beginning of the "Intifada" to more than 600, according to Syrian human rights organisations.
Stresses felt by the Syrian regime on the domestic front have been compounded by damage to the country's reputation abroad, with much of what the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad trying to achieve in foreign affairs having collapsed during the unrest that has rocked the country. Allies have distanced themselves from the regime, friends have turned their backs, and neutral states have become the foes of "a regime that kills its own people," according to one EU official once impartial towards Syria.
Although a UN Security Council resolution supported by European countries that condemned Syria for its repression of the protests failed to be passed last week, this has not affected regional and international efforts that continue to work towards isolating the Syrian regime. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Austria, the US, Canada and other countries have recalled their ambassadors to Syria in protest at the regime's use of force against the demonstrators, warning Damascus against continuing to use such violence.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki- Moon has called for an independent investigation into the violence, rejected by Syria which has said it is capable of carrying out such an investigation itself.
In response to the repression, US President Barack Obama last week signed a decree imposing new economic sanctions against a number of Syrian officials and the Syrian regime. These officials include Maher Al-Assad, the president's younger brother and leader of the Republican Guard, his cousin Hafez Makhlouf, a senior intelligence officer, chief of intelligence Ali Mamluk, Atef Naguib, chief of intelligence in Daraa governorate, and Abdel-Fattah Qadsiya, another intelligence officer.
The US sanctions did not include president al-Assad himself, but they did include a freeze of Syrian assets, a boycott by US companies and travel bans. In a statement, the White House said that "the unfortunate events in Syria demand a strong international response."
The EU has also decided to impose sanctions on the regime in Damascus, in order to pressure it to stop the use of force and return to dialogue with the opposition and the protesters. The EU sanctions are directed against officials in the regime, and there has also been a tentative agreement to ban the sale of arms and equipment to Syria that could be used against demonstrators.
The EU has drafted a plan to freeze the assets of senior regime officials, banning them from travelling to Europe, and freezing European assistance to the Syrian government in the form of loans and grants. A proposed partnership agreement with the EU has been withdrawn, and there will be further attempts at uniting ranks at the UN Security Council in order to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian regime.
Members of the UN's Human Rights Council have also agreed to send an international delegation to the country in order to investigate alleged human rights violations. The situation will be referred to the International Criminal Court if the Syrian authorities do not cooperate with the delegation, members said, with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay, all countries that the Syrians had hoped could resist European moves to isolate the country, all voting for the move.
Meanwhile, the Arab states of Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all abstained from the Human Rights Council vote, a sign that the Arab states do not support the actions of the Syrian regime.
Moreover, Syrian ally Turkey sent its intelligence chief to the country to meet with Al-Assad to urge him to launch reforms that could help to end the uprising. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement that if al-Assad did not implement reforms, "he may be overthrown in the same manner as other totalitarian rulers who were toppled by popular uprisings in other parts of the Middle East" this year.
The UK found its own way to penalise Syria when British Foreign Minister William Hague withdrew the invitation extended to the Syrian ambassador to London to attend the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton last week, saying that he had become "persona non grata" after the suppression of the protests in Syria.
The UN Development Programme also announced that it would suspend assistance to Syria for the next five years, while Qatari utilities companies cancelled an agreement to build and operate two power stations in Syria. Observers believe that the Qatari announcement could be the beginning of the dissolution of economic ties between the two states, especially since political disputes had already erupted between the two countries over the Libyan crisis.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that his government agreed with the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy on a proposal to impose harsh EU sanctions on Syrian military and intelligence officials thought to be behind the bloodshed in Syria. Frattini's German counterpart Guido Westerwelle said that "we are determined that the cycle of violence must end," stressing that "brutal force against demonstrations puts Syria at a dangerous crossroads" and the EU "will not tolerate human rights violations."
US Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, said that "it is unacceptable that the Syrian government continues to confront its brave sons by random killings using tanks," and he called on Washington's allies to "take measures against the Syrian regime," especially Turkey and the Gulf states.
Meanwhile, Samir Al-Nashar, head of the largest opposition bloc inside Syria, the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview that "the Syrian people will harshly judge the positions taken by Russia and China on issues of freedom," referring to these two countries' refusal to support UN sanctions against the Syrian regime. However, this was "expected since freedom and democracy have not yet taken root in either Russia or China".
Al-Nashar said that "the security solution has cost the Syrian regime its regional and international stature, and the damage abroad will be greater than the losses at home even if it is able to end the protests." The regime had worked hard to restore communications with many countries, among them France, Turkey and the US, but these gains were being dissipated as a result of the use of violence against peaceful demonstrations, he said.
"One need only look at the positions of Turkey, Qatar and France, which is leading the European campaign against the Syrian regime. These will impact the Syrian regime more than the position of the rest of the world because Syria is linked politically and economically with Europe more than it is with any other bloc. It will be difficult for Damascus to restore such regional and international ties after it has lost its credibility in this way," al-Nashar said.
Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, the country's official and semi-official media have attacked several erstwhile Syrian allies, accusing Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, the UAE, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, France, the US and others of being behind the escalating protests in Syria.
As a result of its reaction to the unrest currently taking place in the country, Syria is losing its regional role and risking the 210 million euros in assistance it receives annually from Europe, as well as its possible future partnership agreement with the European Union and nascent ties with the US. Just as importantly, the regime in Damascus is losing the support of other Arab countries, until recently vital in helping to guarantee that it remains in power.


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