x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Syrians deserve support, but it is their struggle

It's fine that the US finally declared that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has lost legitimacy. But it is absurd that the statement came only after a pro-regime mob attacked the US embassy in Damascus.

The US declaration that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has lost legitimacy is long overdue, considering the litany of reports about human rights violations. But it is disappointing that the declaration came as a very public response to Monday's mob attack against the US embassy in Damascus by regime loyalists, not as a condemnation of the regime's actions against its own people. It is a pity; the United States should separate the wheat from the chaff in its foreign policy.

The anti-regime uprising will enter its fifth month on Friday. The Assad regime continues to fire on protesters, and has killed at least 1,400 civilians. Three weeks ago, the theme of nationwide Friday protests was "suqoot al shar'yya" - the loss of legitimacy - and the demand that Mr Al Assad leave office.

The state-sponsored national dialogue at the beginning of the week was more of a mockery than a real engagement. The perception of protesters was that the majority of participants were regime loyalists. What kind of "dialogue" can occur when every participant toes the party line?

The real opposition is in the streets or has been driven abroad. Haitham Al Maleh, a Syrian judge and prominent dissident, has announced from Turkey that the opposition plans to form a shadow government to oversee progress towards democracy. The United States and regional powers should consider how they can support that opposition in exile.

For the most part, Syrians reject foreign intervention but accept foreign pressure on the Assads - it is a crucial distinction. Pressure could include more stringent sanctions against the regime and also against loyalists who participate in human rights abuses.

Intervention, however, could lend weight to the regime's false claims of a foreign conspiracy.

In his latest press conference in Damascus Walid Al Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, said: "I assure you, from my experience, that there will be no foreign military intervention." Mr Al Moallem is almost certainly right - with the example of deadlock in Libya and the potential for instability in the Levant, military intervention is improbable. What remains is for the international community to take a firm, principled position.

The statement that Mr Al Assad had lost his legitimacy after the embassy attack was saying the right thing for the wrong reasons. It is simply a statement of political retaliation, rather than a response to human rights violations.