Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Editorial: The road to peace

Dialogue with the opposition is only viable option for Syrian leadership

Across the world there are regimes that think nothing of oppressing and killing their people. The Arab world has had more than its fair share, although there are other screaming examples — Zimbabwe and Myanmar, to name but two. The reason, however, that prompted the international community to take action in Libya was the industrial scale of slaughter. Qaddafi had sent in aircraft and tanks to kill his people and would have killed thousands more had not the UN approved the no-fly zone and civilian protection resolution. That was not the situation in Tunisia or Egypt. Nor has it been in Yemen or Syria, at least not until now.
Suddenly, however, in Syria’s case that has changed. It is beginning to look ominously like the early days of the Libyan uprising. Over 400 people have been killed since pro-reform demonstrations began more than a month ago. It is not yet quite as bad as Libya but it is clear that a decision has been taken in Damascus that opposition to the government will not be tolerated and that the protests are to be crushed with whatever force it takes. As was the case in Libya, tanks have been sent in and the ordinary population in a number of towns is being terrorized by indiscriminate shooting by rooftop snipers. Even mourners attending funerals have been attacked.
By whom that decision was taken is unclear. There are voices both in the Arab world and elsewhere that claim that President Bashar Assad wants reform but that others pulling the levers of power. That may be as accurate as the Syrian government’s claims that the sniper attacks are the work of unnamed “terrorists”. But whoever took the decision should realize that force is not going to solve the crisis. It will only make matters worse. The lessons of Libya need to be heeded in Damascus. There the protesters initially demanded reforms but were pushed by the regime’s murderous response into demanding the removal of Qaddafi and all his cohorts. Likewise, Syrian protesters initially did not call for the departure of Assad. They wanted change. But the terrifying crackdown is acting as a recruiting sergeant for them and hardening their demands. Even some government supporters have been shocked into opposition by the response.
The Syrian people do not want to go down the Libyan route. They want a peaceful solution to the crisis. But the country is now at the point of no return. Violence is going to create counter-action. Damascus urgently needs to heed yesterday’s statement by the Arab League that the popular demands for freedom and democracy require “support ... not bullets in the chests of demonstrators”. It should listen too to its neighbor Turkey’s pleas to stop the crackdown.
Offering reform with on hand, with an end to emergency rule, but taking it away with the other, by banning protests — as has happened — does nothing for the authorities’ credibility. Syria faces further bloodshed and, with it, the likelihood on international action. Already, the EU and the Americans are talking about sanctions. That is only going to further destabilize the country and add to the fire. Dialogue with the opposition is only peaceful option for Syria.  Damascus must act now.