Comment: Assad's brutality demands an effective embargo

Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a former defence and foreign secretary and is chairman of parliament's intelligence and security committee.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a former defence and foreign secretary and is chairman of parliament's intelligence and security committee.

A full economic embargo of Syria would bring the situation to a head, and prevent the Syrian people's suffering being prolonged.

By Sir Malcolm Rifkind

A moderate and democratic Syria, that serves as a stabilising force in the Middle East, has been a long standing hope of western nations. Whether the country is in a position to assume such a status at some time has never been in doubt. The country boasts a rich demographic diversity, an economy untainted by strict reliance on energy exports, and access to the Mediterranean Sea. The issue at hand has always been the nature of the country's regime.

In recent years, it had been the hope that Bashar al-Assad might be the man to realise the brighter future that lies within reach. Unfortunately, Assad himself proved to be more willing to cast in his lot with the aggressive elements represented by the Iranian regime and its allies. Rather than positioning Syria alongside Turkey, a country that would have been a natural partner, Assad sought to forge an artificial alliance with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah.

The results were bad news for the Middle East. Assad did little to stem the flow of insurgents streaming into post-Saddam Iraq, supported Hizbullah's destabilising role in the Lebanon, and even sought to emulate Iran's nuclear ambitions with a program of its own, something eliminated by an Israeli airstrike in 2007. Yet hopes for Assad pivoting away from such activities continued to linger. For all his errors, he hadn't repeated the brutality of his father's rule, which was forever characterised by the massacre of thousands of civilians in Hama. Perhaps, with enough coaxing, the son could be encouraged to chart the right course.

Such a hope can no longer be seriously entertained. The manner in which Assad has sought to stamp out dissent over the last 12 months, culminating in the indiscriminate shelling of protesting neighbourhoods, suggests that brutality runs in the family. Having lost the support of his people, as well as the countries in the region, Assad can no longer lay claim to a role in Syria's future.

Unfortunately, while the dye has been cast, the three countries that could have restrained the Syrian regime have not done so. Iran, desperate to preserve its dream of a Shia crescent running through the Arab world, has bolstered the regime with political and military support. Russia, long an ally of the Assad dynasty, has adopted a policy of reflexive opposition to any criticism of their man in Damascus. Lastly but by no means least is China, which has cited its traditional policy of non-interference as the cause of its opposition to a UN brokered solution. This triad is only delaying the inevitable change in regime, leading to needless months of slaughter. Accordingly, the challenge for Syria's neighbours, and the western nations that back their calls for Assad's departure, is to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion.

Military intervention by western states is very unlikely to form part of the approach. Unlike Nato's intervention in Libya, UN backing for force will not be forthcoming due to the intransigence of Moscow and Beijing. Moreover, the circumstances on the ground are unsuited to an air campaign. There are few nearby bases from which Syrian airspace could be patrolled. The government's forces and the rebels are not physically divided, with fighting taking places within a host of cities. Moreover, the armed forces that have remained loyal to the regime are far more effective than the ramshackle forces on which Colonel Gaddafi relied, many of which were armed mercenaries.

Yet the fact that armed force is not an appropriate response to the current situation does not eliminate the international community’s options. For one thing, the rebels themselves are likely to be bolstered by the states of the Arab league. Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular are likely to smuggle supplies and weapons to Assad's challengers, in order to prevent their defeat. Indeed, while I have no evidence of it, the fact that the uprising has lasted so long suggests that such supply chains are already in place.

What is not yet in place is the concerted international action that is needed to loosen Assad's grip on the country. Here the UK and its partners can be instrumental. Starting immediately, the Arab League, Turkey, the US and EU should move to establish a full economic embargo. Such a step would have an inevitable effect on the Syrian people. Yet it would bring the situation to a head, and prevent their suffering being prolonged.

Implementing an economic measure of this kind would be difficult, but not impossible. Turkey and Iraq have already called for the Assad regime to go, and could be persuaded to close their land borders and airspace to Syrian trade. Likewise a naval blockade of Syria's Mediterranean ports, as well as rigorous searches of vessels heading to the Lebanon, would cut off the Assad regimes ability to receive Russian and Iranian arms shipments.

The argument that Assad brings stability to a trouble region has been demolished by recent events. The country is mired in a civil war, made possible by the desperation of the regime, and a small group of foreign enablers. Cutting off their support and bringing down the regime would be good for Syrian people, and the region as a whole. We should not delay.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a former defence and foreign secretary and is chairman of parliament's intelligence and security committee.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Lunchtime. Your inbox. It's a date.