It’s a fair indicator that things are bad when the misogynist thugs of Saudi Arabia and the butchers of Bahrain can with any credibility criticise your human rights record. That’s where the regime of Bashar al-Assad is right now, as it faces concerted regional pressure to end the mass slaughter it has been engaged in in recent weeks in an attempt to end the months-long uprising against the regime.
The Saudi dictatorship — the linchpin of the fightback against the Arab Spring, which rolled tanks and troops into Bahrain to savagely repress protests there, recalled its ambassador from Damascus this week and King Abdullah called for Assad to “stop the killing machine and the bloodshed.” Bahrain and Kuwait followed suit.
The hypocrisy, of course, partly reflects Syria’s close links with Iran, rather than a sudden Gulf embrace of human rights. But the sheer scale of murder by Assad, and the grotesque reports emerging from the cities of Hama and Deir al-Zour, this week prompted the Arab League to finally intervene, calling for the Syrian regime to halt “acts of violence and campaigns by the security forces against civilians”.
In fact, while most of us have been focused on events in London and the latest demonstration of the efficient markets hypothesis on share markets, events have moved quickly in the region. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Damascus on Tuesday our time with the professed goal of laying down the law to Assad, partly because of the slaughter but also because the campaign is now moving close to Syria’s extensive border with Turkey, raising the possibility that Turkey might respond militarily. Davutoglu’s trip — which is said to have included an offer of sanctuary if Assad gives up power — yielded no movement from the regime, although Assad has since admitted “some mistakes had been made by the security forces in the initial stages of the unrest and that efforts were under way to prevent their recurrence”.
Overnight, the Obama Administration, though not the President himself, finally moved close to an outright call for Assad’s departure, saying Syria would be “better off without him”. Yesterday the US Treasury expanded its sanctions list to include the Commercial Bank of Syria and mobile operator Syriatel.
The odium of Assad’s butchery — recall he responded to the initial stages of the Arab Spring by claiming he and other regimes had no choice but to reform — is so great that the regime’s partner, Hezbollah, is now facing criticism. The Iran-aligned militant group has lauded Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and the Gulf States, but supported Assad and the Iranian Government in their suppression of protests, a blatant double standard that one-time supporters haven’t missed.
One of the reasons the regime’s ongoing campaign against civilians — involving the shelling of residential areas and indiscriminate sniper fire — is that internet and mobile phone services have been switched off in the targeted areas, allowing authorities a free hand to act without the sort of real-time reports on social media that have been a feature of other Arab Spring protests. Without live coverage or the posting of footage and photos online, the campaign coverage is reduced merely to one of numbers: the death toll now stands at more than 2000 people. Hama residents who have been able to contact the outside world have said the Syrian Army was stopping people and removing footage from mobile phones. The regime’s efforts have been rewarded with a sharp fall in coverage both online and in the mainstream media.
The obvious and persistent question is why Libya has been treated one way and Syria another. The answer, of course, is realpolitik and budgets, particularly given events of the past fortnight, and how Europe is flat out finding the money to keep the remnants of Muammar Gaddafi’s air force and armour suppressed. The only possibility of an end to the carnage appears to lie with Turkey.