Thursday

22nd Oct 2020

EU diplomats ponder if Syria next to fall

EU ambassadors in Damascus are preparing a report on the "million dollar question" of whether President Bashir al-Assad's regime will be next in line to fall in a popular uprising.

A diplomatic contact said the "deep, substantial analysis" of the situation inside the country and its meaning for EU-Syria relations is to be ready next week. The union is unlikely to do anything beyond urging restraint until the heads of mission report is sent.

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  • Al-Assad (r) met Sarkozy in Paris in November (Photo: elysee.fr)

One current view is that young Facebook-using protesters in Damascus are divorced from the tribal unrest in the south of the country. The line goes that al-Assad still has a window of opportunity to make reforms before the movements link up and a mass protest in the capital forces him to step aside or to go down the Gaddafi route of extreme violence.

Al-Assad's troops are believed to have gunned down between 15 and 100 people in and around the Jordanian border town of Daraa since last Friday.

The Daraa protests began when tribal clans went on the streets to call for the release of 15 schoolchildren detained for writing Egypt and Tunisia revolution-inspired slogans on walls in the city. The children have been set free. But some 20,000 people went to the funeral of nine of the dead on Thursday (24 March), chanting slogans such as: "The blood of martyrs is not spilt in waste."

The situation in Damascus early on Thursday was calm, with students busy preparing for upcoming exams.

Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based analyst for Human Rights Watch, said: "It's very hard to know what's happening. When I call people in Daraa they say there are dead bodies lying in the streets." He added that Friday could be a "key moment" if people in the capital hold large-scale rallies after end-of-week prayers.

For his part, Michel Koutouzis, a freelance security consultant who advises the European External Action Service and who has spent the past two months touring north Africa and the Middle East, believes there is a good chance al-Assad will fall.

"Yemen and Syria are the two hotspots right now [in terms of potential revolutions]," he told EUobserver by phone on Thursday.

"In Syria it's the bazaar, the middle classes, the traders and the businessmen, who make the decisions and the middle classes are turning against him. If they rise up like in Egypt and al-Assad does not give the order to shoot in the first 48 hours it will be very difficult to stop," he explained.

"Al-Assad has the will to shoot people - three, five, 15, but not thousands. Things are different now compared to one month ago. This is something we won with the intervention in Libya ... the dictators in the rest of the Arab world now understand they don't have the possibility to freely gun down their own people."

The Daraa violence has prompted condemnations by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and EU parliament president Jerzy Buzek.

The US and EU governments have mostly kept silent on what is a strategic country in terms of Israeli security and the Iran nuclear dossier.

But on Wednesday the French foreign ministry called for "political reforms" to be "immediately initiated" in Syria, in a sign that President Nicolas Sarkozy could be getting ready to come down on the side of protesters.

Asked if the Daraa killings are a good enough reason for Sarkozy to tell al-Assad to step down, Koutouzis said: "It's not the right moment. We are not yet at the moment of a popular revolution against the authorities in Syria. We are still at the beginning of the process."

Close links between Paris and Damascus saw Sarkozy and al-Assad hold one-to-one talks in the Elysee palace in December in which Sarkozy reportedly told him not to meddle in Lebanon.

London also has good back-channels to Damascus.

The specialist Paris-based publication Intelligence Online says that al-Assad spy chief Ali Mamlouk held a series of high-level meetings on counter-terrorism in the UK capital in November. Seventeen Syrian secret service officers then took part in a 45-day-long training scheme in Britain in December and January. A second secret service delegation went over for training in early 2011.

EUOBSERVER TV / BRUSSELS (24 March 2011) - Finnish MEP Heidi Hautala, chair of the human rights subcommittee of the European Parliament, says the EU needs to be strong in condemning the suppression of peaceful demonstrators and criticise dictators that maintain a police state.

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