Bye bye Bashar? | Press release me, let me go | 31 Oct 2011 | Amnesty International UK

Bye bye Bashar?

In a rare interview with a Western journalist – the Sunday Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan – Syria's President Bashar al-Assad was quoted yesterday saying that there will be a political "earthquake" in the region if the West intervenes in Syria.

"Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?", he asks/warns. "Any problem in Syria will burn the whole region", he says. "If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region."

After the no-fly-zone “interventionism” of Libya and the fall of Gaddafi, Assad is presumably worried enough to start issuing these kinds of thinly-disguised warnings. Currently, countries potentially able to enforce a no-fly-zone – should it ever come to that – appear to have no appetite for it anyway. Certainly a no-fly-zone would prove hugely controversial, would probably cause massive ructions in Iran and elsewhere, would have unclear outcomes on the ground and could itself create a threat to Syrian civilians.

Nevertheless, calls for a no-fly-zone from some quarters in Syria are increasing. Syria’s peaceful protesters most definitely need some form of protection – from the country’s security forces. On an almost daily basis, these are using tanks and snipers against protestors (President Assad says it’s only “terrorists” they target, but a wealth of other information suggests otherwise). Meanwhile, the authorities continue to deploy the military intelligence service (the Mukhabarat), and also other tried and tested techniques of repression, like rounding up thousands of people and allowing prison guards to actually torture people to death in significant numbers, partly as a warning to others.

The clamour for a no-fly-zone is perhaps a distraction. Amnesty’s call – itself still falling on deaf ears at the United Nations – is for the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Assad regime members, a full arms embargo, and for the situation to be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

Meanwhile, what else could change the situation, with its daily and seemingly unending pattern of protests and killings? One, of course, is that President Assad could stand down and allow others to form some kind of interim government. It's not looking likely at the moment (in the Sunday Telegraph interview he struck an intransigent pose), but it was interesting to hear William Hague making his clearest call yet over this yesterday. And the (usually quiescent) Arab League also started upping the ante at the weekend.

I didn't actually catch sight of Mr Hague at the big protest rally outside the Syrian embassy in London on Saturday (maybe he was keeping a low profile, hiding beneath one of his trademark baseball caps), but certainly Hague's call for Assad to go would have struck a chord with the protestors chanting "Get out / Assad" at the event. The demo, which I flagged in my last post, was notable for its size (as many as 2,000 people attended), its powerful sense of purpose and solidarity (one banner read, rather movingly, "Syria, Manchester is with you to the end") and, strange to tell, an underlying sense of optimism. These people really do believe, as one chant memorably put it, that it's "Bye bye Bashar" and "We will see you in The Hague".

Saturday's colourful, noisy and very lively rally (see photos here and listen to audio here) was countered by a much smaller pro-regime, counter-protest around the corner, with just a few dozen souls waving Assad posters and declaring in one banner I saw that Syria needs EU and British “expertise”, not criticism. (Well, if it would like expertise in the form of forensic investigators able to determine why so many people are dying in custody in Syrian jails, I'm sure that Britain and other EU countries could supply them).

But, away from the loud-hailers and the main speeches of the demo, one thing that lodged in my mind was the sight of an elderly, over-coated Syrian man closing his eyes and shaking his head in disbelief when hearing one of the medical experts on stage describe how doctors in Syria have been killed for treating the wounded. It was an expression of utter dismay. It's still the only sane reaction to the crackdown in Syria.

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