Britain presses Syria's Assad on promised reforms

A draft UN Security Council statement condemning Syria's use of violence has stalled, with China, Russia, and Lebanon opposing the initiative.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives before attending a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on April 26.

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As the international community considers its options for punishing the Syrian government, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said today that there is still time for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "do the right thing," ending the use of violence against protesters and implementing reforms.

However, the protesters – and increasingly, members of the international community – seem to think that point has passed. Al Jazeera reported that on Wednesday an umbrella group of activists issued a statement insisting on a democratic transition and said that if Mr. Assad does not want to be a part of the process, then "there is no alternative left for Syrians."

According to Syrian human rights organizations, more than 400 people have died since unrest began in the southern city of Deraa almost two months ago. The government has brutally put down the protests, and international condemnation has not lessened its resolve to hold on to power. More Syrian Army troops were sent into Deraa today after Monday's initial foray, and there were reports of gunfire, the Associated Press reports. Troops entered the Damascus suburb of Douma for the first time today as well.

But, Mr. Hague said, Assad is still at heart a reformer and could choose to make concessions to protesters' demands, the Guardian reported.

"President Assad has made two major speeches on reform in Syria — one of them was in the eyes of most of us too weak and the other one was too late but nevertheless he has made those speeches and committed himself to important reforms," said Hague. "It is not too late for him to say he really is going to do those reforms and additional reforms." …

"We will urge them to do the right thing. It is not too late for them to do so. They are being urged to do so by many other countries including in our own region and I appeal to them again to respect the legitimate grievances and not to engage in this repression and violence against their own people."

In an opinion piece for POLITICO, former State Department official Aaron David Miller argues that there is a "growing chorus" in Congress and elsewhere that Assad is not a reformer. He observes that the Obama camp is divided on how to proceed, and that the steps so far indicate more of a "whack-a-mole" approach than a coherent policy.

The United Nations Security Council also appears to be divided over a draft statement condemning the violence in Syria. China and Russia, who both have the ability to veto a Security Council statement, are unhappy about the Libya intervention and reluctant to get entangled elsewhere in the region, while Lebanon is hesitant to criticize its neighbor.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has also called for an independent investigation to the violence. Syria's envoy to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, insisted that was unnecessary, saying the country had a functioning government and would be able to carry out an investigation of its own. "Syria has a government, has a state," said Mr. Jaafari. "We can undertake any investigation by our own selves with full transparency.... We have nothing to hide."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Assad Tuesday, urging him to curb the use of violence and to implement the reforms demanded by protesters, Reuters reports. He said that lifting the emergency law was a start, but not enough, and called the violence a "disturbing process."

Prime Minister Erdogan is dispatching an envoy to Damascus and the country's national security council is meeting to discuss the possibility of a civil war in Syria. Turkey is also preparing for a possible influx of Syrian refugees across its eastern border with Syria, according to Bloomberg.

Syria's unrest presents a worrying guessing game for the US, Israel, and many other countries, the Los Angeles Times notes. Unlike Libya, which sits politically and geographically on the periphery of the Arab world, Syria is at the center. It has close strategic ties to both Lebanon and Iran, support from Russia, and also shares a border with Israel, with whom it has no diplomatic relations.

Regime change is "threatening to upend some longstanding alliances and encouraging neighbors to scramble for sudden advantage" and could affect issues ranging from the US-Iran relationship to water rights in Jordan, according to the LA Times.

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