With thousands of Syrians fleeing to Turkey in fear of more attacks by government forces, Europe is intensifying diplomatic pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to stop using violence against civilians.
Supported by Germany and Portugal, the UK and France have drafted a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s suppression of pro-democracy protests but not calling for military action or additional sanctions.
While Europe is again taking the lead on rallying international response to a Middle East uprising, many analysts say the West is cautious about moving too strongly against Syria because of its strategic importance in the region. What's more, many say, Assad will continue to act with impunity as long as he feels that the West considers him as part of an eventual solution to ending the violence there.
“Libya has oil, but it has little strategic importance. Syria is a pivotal state, it has immense strategic importance in the region,” says Jean-Francois Daguzan, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "Regime change in Libya will not change the political landscape of the whole of North Africa. Regime change in Syria will affect the situation of Israel, of Lebanon, of Iran, of Turkey even.”
Mr. Daguzan said Western governments are also worried about what could follow Assad. "What kind of policy would a government of the Sunni majority in Syria stand for? No one knows. Europe’s options in Syria are very limited and a military intervention is out of the question.”
The draft UN resolution put forward by the UK and France asks for political reforms and the release of political prisoners. But it does not authorize concrete action by the international community and it stresses that any solution to this crisis has to include the Syrian authorities.
“Syria was at the center of the Western policy of engagement in the last two or three years,” said Nadim Shehadi, Syria expert with the London-based think tank Chatham House. “A lot of people invested political capital into arguing for engagement with Assad. And the regime is very clever in blurring people’s vision about what could happen. European policymakers are traumatized by Iraq and Libya, so when Assad paints a picture of a bloody sectarian war developing out of this uprising, they are not willing to take that risk.”
But Mr. Shehadi says that for the Assad regime to consider a change of course, the West needs to make a strong statement against its actions.
“Syria needs a clear message,” he says. “A message by the West that we do not see Assad as the future of Syria, and as the guarantor of stability in the region. Ambiguity is interpreted by him as a sign of support, as a sign that the West cannot see life beyond him. That is a license to kill, a carte blanche to crack down on the opposition. Without a clear message from the international community, people in Syria are afraid to go that last step and get rid of Assad.”
More than 1,000 Syrians crossed the border to Turkey within the past 24 hours, according to a Turkish official. The refugees say they anticipate a violent crackdown by troops closing in on the northwest border town of Jisr al-Shugur, where earlier in the week 120 members of the security forces were killed by armed gangs, according to the Syrian authorities. Turkish media report that the government in Ankara is preparing for an influx of up to 1 million refugees.
The events in northwestern Syria mark a climax in the unrest that started three months ago and cost more than 1,300 lives, according to human rights activists.