x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Syria's friends must give it good advice

Only strong words from Syria's allies can convince Bashar al Assad's regime to retreat from its policy of violence against demonstrators.

'Our brothers in Syria need good friends and need good advice," the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, told reporters in Abu Dhabi last week. "They have listened to us and to our fears."

Sometimes only friends can tell you when things are going wrong. In Syria, unvarnished counsel may well be what leaders in Damascus need to hear.

Since mid-March more than 1,300 people have been killed in an uprising that shows no sign of abating. The dead include soldiers who opposition leaders say were shot because they refused to obey orders to attack protesters.

At first a domestic challenge, Syria's struggles are now spilling into neighbouring states, testing regional resolve. As tanks and helicopter gunships moved into the northern city of Jisr al Shughur, thousands fled to Turkey; so far more than 8,000 have gone, and there are reports that thousands are waiting to follow.

Syria's stability is obviously in the region's interest. But at the weekend the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called the violence what it is: "savagery". For a nation that shares an 800-kilometre border and has broad commercial and trade interests it was no insignificant rebuke.

As the situation stands now, Syrians continue to take to the streets and the security forces offer nothing but bullets. Many might prefer a return to the status quo,but evidence suggests agitation and sectarian divides are growing, not diminishing.

Tough talk from friends could save lives and maybe, just maybe, turn this cycle back. Yet so far, much of those within Syria's orbit have been mute. It does not help anyone when friends in Russia, China, Lebanon, Venezuela, Iran, India and Brazil tell the regime that there is nothing wrong with its response. Some of these countries will oppose any UN Security Council resolution to condemn the violence.

Opposition to President Bashar al Assad's brutal policies in other western capitals is mounting. And yet, calls for calm have failed to resonate. As uprisings across the Arab world have proven, any solution is more about responding to people's demands and less about international diplomacy and action.

The final say for Syria's future rests with the Syrian people. But they need help ending the bloodshed. That's a message Mr al Assad must hear.