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External pressure “cannot solve” Syrian crisis

Syrian army withdraws from the northeastern province of Deir el-Zour, Syria on August 16, 2011 Keystone

Pressure by the international community can have a moral, supportive role but external factors cannot bring about change to the Syrian crisis, says a Swiss expert.

Mohammad Reza-Djalili, a political scientist who specialises in the Middle East, says the five-month crisis has entered a crucial new phase, but much still depends on the relationship between President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian security forces.

Assad told United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week that military and police operations, which have intensified since the start of the holy month of Ramadan this month to crush the uprising against Assad’s rule, had stopped.

However, activists said that around 34 people were killed across the country on Friday when forces loyal to Assad fired at protestors who had taken to the streets demanding his removal.

Criticism is growing worldwide of the Syrian government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. Do recent events in Syria and action by the international community represent a tipping point in the ongoing five-month struggle?

Mohammed Reza-Djalili: During the initial months the international community, including western states, wanted us to believe that President Bashar al-Assad was capable of making the necessary reforms to progressively move Syria down the road to democracy.

But Assad has now been abandoned by the international community, especially the West. To reach this point Assad’s government first needed to be isolated regionally, which is what happened recently with Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, Kuwait, Qatar, the Arab League and Turkey.

All that was left was a decision by the Western countries and this happened yesterday. Assad has been asked explicitly to give up power and pressure has been stepped up on the regime. From an international point of view we have entered a new phase in the Syrian crisis. Do you expect a swift collapse or a drawn out solution?

M. R-D.: This is extremely hard to say. For now what has enabled the regime to stay in place is the trust shown to the Assad regime by the vast majority of armed forces and police.

There could be a quick change if the regime loses its advantage and the army refuses to shoot at the population, which is what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. But we are not there right now. The Syrian government is well aware of what happened in both those countries and is doing its utmost to stop the emergence of a Tahrir-like protest square which could be very damaging.

Everything depends on the relationship between Assad and the armed forces and police. Have you seen any signs of splits or dissension among the Syrian security forces?

M.R-D.: There is information that suggests that, but even if there are splits right now they are not that significant, and they would not implicate the entire repressive security apparatus that is faithful to the regime.

The Syrian system is extremely authoritarian and centralised, based on privileged relations with the minority Alawite sect [of Shiite Islam] who include the president and comprise 12 per cent of the population.

But this cannot go on eternally. And if the situation evolves in a very serious way, the first critical cracks may start appearing in the security forces. Could external international pressure ever be enough to cause regime change?

M.R-D.: I think the crucial conditions are internal ones above all. International pressure can have a moral, supportive role but external factors cannot solve things.

Assad has always presented the events in Syria as those [being] guided from outside the country but this is false. The reality is quite different. What is happening is due to events inside the country; to a much smaller degree international support and sanctions can help accelerate change. What is Iran’s role in events in Syria?

M.R-D.: Today Iran is Syria’s sole ally in the region. Its alliance dates back 30 years.

At the beginning of the crisis Tehran downplayed information from Syria. It later backed Syria’s thesis that events were being manipulated by the US and Israel. Today you sense the Iranians are very worried that if Assad’s regime falls, Iran will lose the 30 years of investment it has made to create a foreign policy strategy that uses Syria’s help in Lebanon and in relations with Hamas and Palestinian groups.

If Assad falls this will mean a considerable change for Iran’s policies in the region; it will totally have to reorganise itself.

The Iranians are starting to pay a high price for their long political and moral support for Syria, as many opinion polls in the Arab world show that Iran is losing out to Turkey in terms of its influence.

Switzerland imposed sanctions against Syria, including a freeze on any assets held in Swiss banks by members of the Syrian regime from May 25. It later beefed up sanctions with more names on August 18.

The individuals listed, which include President Bashar al-Assad, are also subject to a travel ban.

The moves brought Switzerland in line with recent European Union sanctions, although on August 19 the EU announced new measures in which assets had been frozen for another 20 people and Syrian businesses.

Criticism is growing worldwide of the Syrian government’s five-month crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. The United States and European Union called on Thursday for Assad to step down.

Switzerland recalled its ambassador to Syria on Thursday, following a similar move by Tunisia and several other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia.

President Barack Obama ordered Syrian government assets in the US to be frozen, banned American citizens from operating or investing in Syria and prohibited US imports of Syrian oil products. 

Diplomats said the EU could decide to toughen sanctions to match the US measures, including a ban on oil imports. Syria exports over one third of its 385,000 barrels per day oil production to Europe. 

United Nations investigators said Assad’s forces had committed violations that may amount to crimes against humanity in a campaign which killed at least 1,900 civilians. The UN planned to send a team to Syria on Saturday to assess the humanitarian situation there. 

The US, Britain and European allies said on Thursday they would draft a UN Security Council sanctions resolution on Syria. But Russia continues to resisted Western calls for UN sanctions and also opposes calls for Assad to step down, believing he needs time to implement reforms.

Despite the dramatic sharpening of Western rhetoric, there is no threat of Western military action like that against Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR