President Assad’s attempts to present himself as a man of reform appear to be all talk and no trousers.
Earlier this month, Syria said it was withdrawing troops and tanks from some cities and offering a “national dialogue” with opposition figures. Giving details of the proposed dialogue, Information Minister Mahmoud said President Assad would meet with “popular delegations” from around the country and listen to “their opinions, demands, and visions about what has currently been taking place in Syria”. The offer has been rejected by Local Coordination Committees who say the government must stop shooting protesters and free political prisoners first; the responses to demands have unearthed the emptiness behind President Assad’s words.
Although Syrian authorities have indeed freed several dissidents - including opposition figure Riad Seif and human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni - the promise of troop withdrawal has been undermined by reports of renewed violence that came just one day after the proposal, with security forces shelling towns and opening fire on civilians. Thousands of Syrians have fled to seek refuge in Lebanon and yet have not been able to escape the unrest; Syrian tanks have been deployed at Lebanon’s border crossing.
Increasing the pressure to end Syria’s violent crackdown, the EU, the US and Canada have imposed sanctions - including travel bans, asset freezes, and arms embargoes - on President Assad and other high-ranking members of his regime. The effectiveness of these actions is questionable. Arguably, these individuals are powerful enough and rich enough to be relatively unaffected by the sanctions – except perhaps in terms of emotional aggravation. In a show of unashamed spite, Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said that Syria would respond to the sanctions by strengthening its relationship with Russia, China, and Latin America - to prove to the West that the world consists of more than Europe and North America. Not only are the sanctions apparently ineffective, they have the potential to exacerbate the situation. If sanctions do not work then the next logical step for the West would be a more extreme measure of external intervention. Yet there have been no calls from Arab countries for international assistance; in fact, its voice on Syria’s uprising is worryingly silent. If we are to avoid the mistakes of the past, it is essential that the West acquires a request from the Arab League before any intervention goes ahead.