x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Civilian deaths spell isolation for Damascus

The world has heard enough from Syrian President Bashar Al Assad but not from the opposition.

On the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Hama massacre on Thursday, Syrian media repeatedly aired a notorious speech by the former president Hafez Al Assad that he delivered after the atrocity. The message was clear: the son was only emulating his father.

Bashar Al Assad's security forces have since escalated the mortar and artillery campaign, shelling neighbourhoods in Homs and killing hundreds of men, women and children. All of this happened while the world dithered at the UN Security Council. The situation in Syria has turned from a political crisis into a moral one.

Although the blame has recently focused on Russia and China as accessories to the regime's murders, the rest of the world shares some responsibility. What message is being sent to the Assad regime when embassies from across the world are still open in Damascus, and its ambassadors abroad still "represent" the people? The GCC's closure of their embassies in Damascus yesterday, following Washington's earlier example, must be emulated elsewhere.

The Syrian opposition is still largely shunned by world leaders, aside from occasional informal meetings. While there are legal implications in recognising the opposition, the international community must urgently take a tougher stance to isolate Damascus. Diplomatic missions had been useful because the world needed to communicate with Mr Al Assad. But the world has seen and heard enough already.

While the US closed its embassy, other governments simply summoned Syrian ambassadors to reprimand them. That was a pitiful move that indicates a reluctance for meaningful action.

The best way forward is to form a contact group to maintain momentum for the Arab League's plan for a peaceful transition to democracy. The idea for a "friends of Syria" group was suggested by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy after the debacle at the United Nations.

Such a coalition would limit the effect of the Russian and Chinese votes. The point of a UN resolution was to establish a consensus on Syria; the veto obscured the fact that 13 of 15 members did agree.

That coalition could help Syria in two major ways: increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the regime and support the opposition. Foreign powers have been reluctant to support the opposition, split as it is between the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Board. Those groups have a responsibility to present a united front. Nevertheless, the SNC now presents a more legitimate representative than the Assad regime.

Days are now counted in Syrian civilian lives. Dithering about the UN failure is no longer an option.