Originally, European Union was seriously imposing series of sanctionson Syria, putting squeeze on Bashar Assadto cede power alongside United States. But, in recent times, EU has remained silent on Assad ouster, leaving US in the battle field. Does EU silence mean solidarity for Syrian President, Bashar Assad. Kingsley Opurum examines.
Last August, to considerable fanfare, Washington and Brussels made a joint declaration on Syria. Enough was enough, they said.
The rising death toll, continued repression and reneged reform promises of President Bashar al-Assad meant he had spurned his last chance to change course. The official policy of the United States administration and European Union member states was that Assad must now go.
For months after, hardly a week went by without EU foreign policy Chief, Catherine Ashton condemning the violence in Syria and calling for Assad to step aside. It’s a line that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is still repeating. “We remain firmly resolved that the regime’s war against its own people must end for good and that a political transition must begin,” Clinton said at the end of a G-8 foreign ministers meeting on April 12.
“Assad will have to go and the Syrian people must be given the chance to chart their own future.”Yet in recent weeks, Brussels has grown quieter on Assad’s role in Syria’s political future. And in a speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday, Ashton seemed to revert to the pre-August 2011 language.
There was no call for Assad to go. Instead, the ceasefire plan of former United Nations scribe, Ban Ki-Moon was “an opportunity for the regime to change course” and it was up to Assad to “match his words with deeds”
A spokesman for Ashton, Michael Mann, said on Wednesday Assad’s departure remained the 27-nation bloc’s official goal.“Several months ago, the EU called for Assad to step aside and that remains our policy.
But of course, the first priority now is to implement the Annan plan in full,” he said.But EU diplomats here acknowledge that the demand that Assad step down has become what one called a “silent policy.”Why the shift? After all, with the Syrian death toll said by the United Nations to have reached 9,000 people, it seems an odd time to be speaking with a softer voice.
Brussels insiders said that the tone shift is more a question of tactics than objectives. Firstly, the fact is that after a year of violence, Assad is still in power and there are no clear signs he’s about to lose his grip. Dealing with that reality makes more sense than ignoring it, some have said.Secondly, the change in tone will not prevent EU member states continuing to ratchet up sanctions on the Syrian regime and working at the United Nations for more aggressive international pressure on Assad.
Thirdly, as Mann said, the absolute priority for the EU now is to help secure a lasting ceasefire on the ground. That requires giving Annan as much political space as possible to work with the Assad regime and the opposition to stem the violence, a diplomat said.
While Washington may feel the need in an election year to keep attacking Assad, Brussels has more freedom to back off a bit – even to leave a certain creative ambiguity over whether it could eventually live with a Syria in which Assad and his top officials may have some role.
Officials note that Annan’s six-point plan is not just about stemming the violence. It also demands the Assad regime allows peaceful protests and accepts a Syrian-led political process to address what it calls “the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.”The hope in Brussels is that once the violence has ebbed, Annan will unleash a political reform and democratization process whose momentum will sweep away Assad, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh before him.
Meanwhile, Russia, China and Iran showed support for Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, on Monday, just days before an international meeting which is likely to put more pressure on him to step down amid an increasingly bloody uprising. Assad met a senior Russian politician in Damascus, who reiterated Moscow’s support for his reform programme and spoke out against any foreign intervention in the conflict, Russian and Syrian news agencies reported.
China accused western countries of stirring up civil war in Syria, and two Iranian warships docked at a Syrian naval base, underscoring rising international tensions over the near year-long crisis.
With Iran already at odds with the US, Europe and Israel over its nuclear programme, the deployment was likely to add to western concerns that the Syria crisis could boil over into a regional conflict if it is not resolved soon.
Asked about the Iranian move at a briefing in Jerusalem, Dan Meridor, Israeli deputy prime minister, said that Assad was receiving generous support from Iran and the Hizbollah militant group, and that Russia and China had given him “a licence to kill”.
Meanwhile, Syria’s forces pressed on with their crackdown on the anti-Assad uprising, with opposition activists reporting five people killed in renewed shelling of an opposition-held district of Homs, and troops and militiamen blockading Hama. Both cities have been in the forefront of the revolt. The referendum, which would lead to multi-party elections within 90 days, is part of what Assad describes as a reform programme to address demands for more democracy.
The west and Syrian opposition figures have dismissed the plan as a joke, saying it is impossible to have a valid election amid the continuing repression.Alexei Pushkov, head of the international affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, met Assad in Damascus on Monday and affirmed Russia’s support for the plan. Moscow is Syria’s main arms supplier.
Pushkov also stressed the need “to continue working for a political solution to the crisis based on dialogue between all concerned parties, without foreign intervention”, Sana, the state news agency, said. Assad, who shows no inclination to relinquish power, told Pushkov Syria was being targeted by armed terrorist groups supported by foreign elements aiming to destabilise the country. China, which sent an envoy to Damascus this weekend, also backs Assad’s plan for a political solution and has appealed to government and opposition alike to halt the violence.
China’s Communist party newspaper, the People’s Daily, took the west to task in a commentary, saying: “If western countries continue to fully support Syria’s opposition, then in the end a large-scale civil war will erupt and there will be no way to thus avoid the possibility of foreign armed intervention.” However, Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League secretary-general, told reporters there were “indications coming from China and to some extent from Russia that there may be a change in position”.
The west has so far ruled out Libya-style military action but the Arab League has indicated some of its member states are ready to arm the opposition, with Saudi Arabia taking the lead. A more immediate concern for the west is the civilians caught up in the offensive against the opposition and a nascent rebel army. Activists in embattled cities such as Homs say food is running out and doctors lack medicine to treat the wounded.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in Geneva it was negotiating with Syrian authorities and opposition fighters for a ceasefire to bring life-saving aid to civilians. Diplomatic sources said the ICRC was seeking a two-hour ceasefire in hotspots including Homs. Opposition activists said five people had been killed in government shelling of Homs’s Baba Amro district on Monday, adding to a reported death toll of several hundred since the operation began there on February 3.