Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Rights group: EU must end 'faustian pact' with Syria

  • Al-Assad poster in Damascus. The Arabic caption says 'We love you' (Photo: anjci)

With the death count in Syria jumping up drastically, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said the EU should impose sanctions on the al-Assad regime or risk missing a historic opportunity to shape events in the Middle East.

Syrian rights activists inside the country report that President Bashar al-Assad's forces killed at least 70 people during protests on Friday (22 April), bringing the number of deaths since violence began six weeks ago to some 270.

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HRW no longer has staff in Syria, but its sources speak of systematic use of live ammunition against unarmed crowds, night-time snatch squads and torture of detainees.

HRW analyst Nadim Houry told EUobserver in his office in Beirut, in neighbouring Lebanon, that the EU reaction so far - statements by foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urging restraint and silence from EU embassies in Syria - is doing nothing to make al-Assad change track.

"Given the level of violence, the EU should impose targeted sanctions against key figures in the regime. Visa bans, asset freezes - no more business as usual, no more glossy spreads in Vogue about Louboutin shoes," Houry said, noting a recent article on al-Assad's wife.

"He must be given a stark choice - either you keep going down the path of repression and you become an international pariah, and it will be very costly for you economically, or you make real reforms and the European Union will give you all the support you need for that."

He added that Ashton's job should be to lobby Mediterranean rim EU powers - France, Italy and Spain - as well as the US and EU-aspirant Turkey to back the tough new line.

Houry, a 33-year-old Lebanese lawyer, said that recent events have exposed a flaw in EU foreign policy.

EU-Syria diplomacy has up to now neglected the rights of Syrian people for the sake of strategic objectives, such as seeking al-Assad's support for the Middle East peace process or maintaining stability in Lebanon. But the uprisings in Syria and beyond show that ordinary Arabs are better partners for bringing positive reform to the region.

"It's time for Europe to stop making faustian pacts with repressive regimes and to realign its foreign policy with its ideals," Houry said. "These are historic events that no-one could have predicted. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a relationship with a new wave in Arab society."

Looking more closely at Syria, he said people have "broken through the wall of fear" that maintained order.

He added that al-Assad could still become a "transitional" leader, but only if he dismantles his hated secret police, the al-Mukhabarat, and makes his security chiefs accountable for crimes.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in Lebanon is calm. People in Beirut are partying on Easter weekend and there is no visible difference apart from extra security on the Syrian side of the border.

Nerves are tense below the surface, however. The largest military power in Lebanon, Hezbollah, is an ally of al-Assad and could get involved if the situation escalates. "If we move to a civil war in Syria, it will have a huge impact on Lebanon," Houry said.

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