Syria faces tougher EU sanctions, but will they work?

July 22, 2011 at 5:53 AM
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DAMASCUS, Syria, July 22 (UPI) -- Syria faces tougher European sanctions but there's no telling they'll work while President Bashar Assad pushes ahead with arrests and attacks on protesters he sees hindering his reforms.

Assad aides have been busy trying to persuade Arab embassies to stay after major funder Qatar shut its diplomatic mission and the capital, reputed to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, faced the specter of conflict in close quarters. Qatar shut its embassy after it was attacked twice by militiamen linked to Assad.

Violence is so widespread across Syria that internal migration by citizens escaping the next outbreak has deepened the chaos and burdened a creaking infrastructure. Syrians seeking shelter outside the battle zones have crowded checkpoints and informal crossings on borders with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. The frontier with Israel is the only exception.

Assad's embattled government braced for more sanctions by intensifying contacts with nations willing to trade out of traditional ties or commercial profit. Renewed questions arose about Syria's finances as the EU confirmed it had frozen more of Syrian cash assets.

The last major EU pronouncements from ministers who met in Brussels last week dismissed Assad's argument the violence was two-way and declared, "Until the unacceptable violence against the civilian population is halted ... the EU will pursue and carry forward its current policy, including through sanctions."

Assad's claim of a foreign conspiracy and a further claim of an ongoing plot to sow sectarian discord among the 22 million Syrians also failed to convince either the Europeans or his embarrassed Arab League peers.

About 74 percent of Syria is Sunni Muslim but is dominated by a military-political elite from its 13 percent Shiite and Alawite minority, to which Assad belongs. About 10 percent of the Syrians who are Christian have been well-assimilated into the mainstream, until now, though tensions recur occasionally.

Assad took over in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez Assad, who had ruled Syria for 29 years. Assad's early years in the presidency raised hopes he would be less brutal than his father and he did, in fact, shut down a prison and release hundreds of political prisoners but the so-called Damascus Spring proved short-lived.

The violence since March has led to deaths of at least 1,500 people and sent at least 10,000 others into detention. More trouble is in store as Ramadan starts Aug. 1 with its rituals of mass gatherings for communal prayers and for feeding of the poor by wealthy individuals and charitable organizations.

A combination of government crackdown, closed borders, economic freeze and near paralysis of the economic sector is beginning to cause massive shortages of essential goods, a sensitive issue during Ramadan, which is marked by lavish feasts before and after the daytime fast for the whole month.

A further cash crunch is on the horizon, EU reports indicated. At least 34 top-ranking individuals and entities are already affected by the EU asset freeze but the next round of sanctions will likely cast its net much wider.

With cash from the rich Arab nations drying up, both under EU pressure and out of embarrassment over Assad's actions, the only possible line of credit likely to remain open for Damascus will be Tehran, which has the resources and the experience of dealing with international sanctions.

Two London think tanks in confidential memorandums to members this week warned Assad could get tougher, rather than buckle under international pressure, and still survive and renegotiate his continued hold on power.

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