Calls for sanctions grow as Assad steps up offensive

European states urge Syria to stem violence as opposition pleads for international assistance.

By OREN KESSLER
April 27, 2011 01:22
Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag

Syrian protesters in Deraa hoisting large flag 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

An international chorus of condemnation swelled Tuesday against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s aggressive crackdown on a popular uprising now entering its sixth week.

European states implored Assad to put an end to the violence, the UK said it is weighing sanctions and the US urged citizens to leave the country immediately.

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Assad’s armed forces continued their crushing counter- offensive Tuesday, with artillery echoing early around the besieged city of Deraa as civilians sought refuge indoors from tanks and snipers on the streets, a resident said.

In the coastal city of Banias, a resident there said, forces braced for a possible attack as protesters chanted “the people want the overthrow of the regime.”

“We need to end, once and for all, the fiction that Bashar Assad is a reformer,” David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post.

“Nobody is under the illusion that the emergency law is going to end or that Syria is going to become a multiparty system. Assad is not prepared to commit political suicide,” he said by phone Tuesday from the US capital.

“Assad is a very vain man who believes Syria is the center of the Middle East, if not the world,” said Schenker, a former top Pentagon aide and expert on the Arab states of the Levant.

“He has to become an international pariah. I would argue that his behavior mandated this type of international response long before now – he’s been brutal to his people for years, ever since he came to power.”

Britain, France, Germany and Portugal are asking the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Syrian crackdown in a draft statement being circulated in New York, a UN diplomat said.

“We send a strong call to Damascus authorities to stop the violent repression of what are peaceful demonstrations,” Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said, at a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Rome.

The US said Monday it was studying targeted sanctions against Syria, and Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal on Tuesday proposed the European Union suspend aid to Damascus and impose an arms embargo and sanctions against its leaders.

The State Department said it had instructed US citizens to leave Syria and ordered some US Embassy personnel to leave the country.

Britain said Tuesday that obtaining a United Nations resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown is difficult for now, but that may change if the repression continues.

“If they [Syria] continue to go down the route of ever more violent repression, well then of course, our concerns may be shared more widely at the UN Security Council and the situation there may change,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament.

“Syria is now at a fork in the road... it can choose ever more violent repression which can only ever bring short term security for the authorities there.”

He added, “If it does so we will work with our European partners and others to take measures including sanctions that will have an impact on the regime.”

Hague said Britain was also making preparations for its citizens to leave Syria.

“There are about 700 British nationals who are registered with us in Syria,” he said. “We do have contingency plans for their evacuation.”

In Turkey, Syrian opposition figures pleaded for international help.

“Our friends in the West, in Turkey, in the Arab world, if they want to help us, then they can do that by... putting the clearest possible pressure on the Syrian regime to stop targeting civilians,” Anas Abdah, the British-based chairman of the Movement for Justice and Development, told Reuters.

Security forces have shot dead 400 civilians in a campaign to crush the uprising against Assad’s 11-year rule, the Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah said on Tuesday.

Another 500 people had been arrested in the last two days, it said.

Last week Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency and abolished a hated state security court. But the next day 100 people were killed during protests across the country.

“Assad understands that there’s a threshold for how many people his forces can kill on a given day,” Schenker said.

“He doesn’t want to cross that threshold, lest he establish some kind of international consensus against him.”

Syrian opposition activists posted a document online two weeks ago that they claimed were intelligence instructions from Damascus on cracking down on dissent. The document – which has the hallmarks of an official memorandum but has yet to be authenticated – instructs security forces not to exceed 20 fatalities per day.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people gathered outside the Syrian Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday in a show of solidarity.

Embassy security tried unsuccessfully to push back the crowd and drown out their chanting with music from loudspeakers, Al-Jazeera reported, adding that the rally was the largest of three demonstrations held in Egypt’s capital since the Syrian uprising began.

In Deraa, residents said telephone lines, electricity and water supplies have all been cut. Majed al-Hourani, speaking by satellite phone to Reuters, said there were bursts of machine-gun fire and artillery rounds in the city. He reported brief, scattered protests in different areas.

Amnesty international, citing sources in Deraa, said at least 23 people were killed when tanks shelled Deraa on Monday in what it called “a brutal reaction to people’s demands.”

Conflicting reports are emerging over the army’s determination to put down the unrest. Anas Abdah, the Syrian rights activist, said he had reports that some officers were defying orders and trying to stop Assad loyalists from entering Deraa.

A local resident said that a demonstration of around 300 youths was allowed to go ahead. Soldiers near a tank deployed close by put down their light arms to signify they would not shoot, he said.

But another amateur video released Tuesday appeared to show peaceful protesters in Deraa chanting “The army is with us,” before being dispersed by gunfire.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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