x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pressure Syria, but be careful of further harm

The world has a duty to remain engaged with Syria, to keep up the pressure as much as possible. The Assad regime must feel that it is still part of the wider world and that atrocities will be subject to scrutiny.

Jakob Kellenberger, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, was in Damascus on Sunday, and Nabil Al Arabi, the secretary general of the Arab League, is set to arrive today. But for Bashar Al Assad, it is business as usual despite the visitors: at least a dozen people were reported killed by security forces on Sunday alone.

It is tempting to say that Mr Kellenberger, Mr Al Arabi and other prominent representatives of the outside world are wasting their time trying to talk sense to Mr Al Assad and his unyielding inner circle. After all, warnings and criticisms have poured into Damascus as the death toll has passed 2,200: from the UN, from other world bodies, from western countries, from the Gulf Cooperation Council, from Turkey, from other Muslim countries, from non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and even from Iran.

But the world has a duty to remain engaged with Syria, to keep up the pressure as much as possible. The Assad regime must feel that it is still part of the wider world and that atrocities will be subject to scrutiny. Despite the continued bloodshed, it is clear the regime is still watching the reaction of the international community.

Although the Syrian people so far oppose foreign intervention, the threat should be available. Sanctions narrowly taliored against those who work for the regime should continue. And the threat of criminal prosecution is an extremely effective tool, especially in the context of recent trials of Hosni Mubarak and, in absentia, of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

But more important than what the world should do, is what it should not do. Last week the French foreign minister Alain Juppe said France would develop contact with the Syrian opposition - giving ammunition to Damascus's claim of foreign intervention. Mr Juppe's statement was a knee-jerk reaction that did more harm than good.

Diplomacy in Damascus must highlight the need to halt the violence, not lend legitimacy to the Syrian regime. Mr Kellenberger's visit was picked up by the Syrian media as a talking point; Mr Al Arabi's plans are being cast as an attempt to take pressure off the regime.

Mr Al Arabi will present the Arab League's 14-point plan to break the deadlock, a plan already widely criticised as hopelessly timid although the details are unknown. But the Assad regime is not immune to foreign pressure, particularly from Arab countries. The world must not abandon Syria, but well-meaning friends have to avoid mistakes that can be exploited by the regime.