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With the Arab League floundering in fantasy, the United Nations will need to go far beyond the sanctions already imposed by the EU and America to punish the Assad regime and force an end to the crackdown. Speaking at a meeting of Pacific leaders, Ban Ki Moon stopped short of calling for military intervention, but urged “coherent measures” by the world community to address the situation. He urged President Assad to take “immediate and bold and decisive measures before it’s too late.” Later, the UN chief corrected his statement, saying, “It’s already too late, in fact. It’s already too late. If it takes more and more days, then more people will be killed.”
The US and the European Union want to urge the UN Security Council to extend the sanctions by adding a travel ban and asset freeze on Assad and 20 of his top associates. Currently, the EU has slapped an embargo on Syrian oil and the US has issued its own asset freeze and travel bans on Assad and members of his inner circle.
But Russia and China are blocking any additional sanctions in the Security Council, refusing even to discuss the matter. And Brazil, India, and South Africa have also questioned the use of sanctions, but have agreed to meet with the US and the EU to discuss what the Washington Post calls “a more diluted council resolution.” Said one Western diplomat, “We’ve decided to put the sanctions to the side.”
There have been questions raised about arming the opposition, but most diplomats believe that would only play into Assad’s hands. The dictator has been saying for months that the opposition is made up of armed gangs and terrorists. This drew an acerbic response from US Ambassador Robert Ford, who said on the embassy’s Facebook page, “No one in the international community accepts the justification from the Syrian government that those security service members’ deaths justify the daily killings, beatings, extrajudicial detentions, torture and harassment of unarmed civilian protestors.”
But there may be little choice for the protestors who face the guns of the Syrian army. One Homs demonstrator said, “The situation is unbearable. You cannot watch the other side just killing you, killing your family, killing your children. But we are concerned about the consequences of taking up arms.”
It’s hard to imagine consequences that would make things much worse in Homs. “The city is completely besieged. When I go to the balcony, I can see the snipers on the tall building in front of me,” said one resident. In addition to the young boy gunned down at a checkpoint, five other bodies were discovered in what might have been sectarian retaliation. Assad has been deliberately trying to split the opposition along religious lines and the deaths in Homs may be related to that effort.
The regime has also intensified its round-ups of protest leaders, with more than 200 arrested in Homs alone in the last 24 hours. Other arrests took place in Latakia, Deir al-Zour, Daraa and Hama. If there is one thing that has been shown in other Arab countries during the uprisings, it’s that arresting protest leaders does nothing to halt the demonstrations, as others in the movement will step forward to take their place. The Syrian opposition is prepared for these eventualities and has proven itself quite resilient in maintaining a tremendous presence in the streets, with protests growing rather than getting smaller despite the arrests.
With the Arab League initiative dead in the water, and the UN Security Council refusing to act, international pressure on Assad to stop the slaughter appears stuck in neutral. The sanctions already in place will hurt, but it will take time for the full effect of the oil ban to be felt. Meanwhile, the army shows little sign of cracking and support for the regime from the business and merchant classes looks solid – for the moment. Assad may bring the Syrian economy crashing down around his head, and sectarian violence is always a shadow in the background waiting to emerge. But until men with guns finally challenge his authority, Assad will continue to hang on to power with all the brutally effective means at his disposal.
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