Options limited against Al-Assad

Despite the international outcry against the Syrian regime, the lack of a clear course of effective action means Bashar al-Assad is likely to battle out the challenges to his leadership in the short term

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is cutting an increasingly isolated figure. International demands for an end to armed attacks on protesters that according to the UN have resulted in almost 2,000 deaths in the past five months have failed to convince the government to withdraw its forces. Promised reforms have also come to nothing. Now, with patience growing thin, there have been calls for Al-Assad to step down and proposals are being discussed for widespread sanctions.

On 18 August, US President Barack Obama declared that “for the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Al-Assad to step aside”. The same day, the UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement demanding that Al-Assad “leave power, for the greater interest of Syria and the unity of his people”.

Regional outcry

Others have fallen short of calling for Al-Assad to step down, but have been increasingly vociferous in their demands that the fighting stop. On 10 August, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Al-Assad to “stop all kinds of violence and bloodshed”, saying that he hoped that “all will be realised in 10-15 days, and steps taken towards the reform process”. On 15 August, Erdogan demanded that military operations “stop immediately and unconditionally”, adding that it was Ankara’s “final word” on the subject.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev declared that if Al-Assad fails to introduce reforms, restore peace and reconcile with the opposition “he will face a sad fate”. Three days later, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said that Syria should think seriously about reforms “before it’s too late”. Riyadh has withdrawn its ambassador to Damascus, as have Kuwait, Bahrain, Tunisia, Italy and Switzerland.

Since protests began, Al-Assad has announced several political concessions. On 19 April, parliament passed a bill revoking a 48-year-old emergency law giving the government power to arrest people without charge and a decree has been issued allowing peaceful protests. A committee has been set up to examine media freedoms and the government has announced a national consultation process to consider the legalisation of political parties, beyond the ruling Baath Party, and a revision of the constitution.

An amnesty for political prisoners was announced on 31 May, followed by a second amnesty a month later. In a concession to the country’s Sunni Muslims, who make up about three quarters of the population, a ban on teachers wearing the Islamic veil was removed.

The regime, however, has categorically failed to deliver on its promises. The systematic use of military force against its citizens has continued. Although hundreds of political prisoners were released following the government’s May amnesty, an estimated 10,000 protesters have been detained since mid-March.

For all their rhetoric, the world’s leaders have proved utterly powerless to influence the situation. While the international demands on Syria have become increasingly belligerent, no one has said what will happen in the case of non-compliance. The reality is that the alternatives are extremely limited.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.