With an estimated 600 to 800 deaths in Syria’s brutal crackdown – and thousands more imprisoned or detained – many in Europe are asking why the government of Bashar Assad hasn’t faced the same tough sanctions that were imposed on Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi.
While the European Union has placed sanctions on 13 individuals in the Syrian regime, none have been passed against Assad himself. And unlike Libya, there is no Western military intervention in Syria.
British Prime Minister David Cameron attempted earlier this week to explain the distinction in an interview with the BBC.
“Well, first of all, it is a completely disgraceful and unacceptable situation to see this regime killing so many of its own people. You ask what is different to Libya. Well, there are some differences. In Libya we were asked by the Arab League to go into that country. We were asked by the Libyan people. We were backed by United Nations Resolution. Clearly, in Syria, we need to do more to step up the pressure on that regime to show internationally this is not acceptable.”
President Assad has promised reforms and, according to the Syrian Embassy in London, Assad’s British-Syrian wife is also busy at home working to promote reform. Other reports, however, say Mrs. Assad has already brought her three children to London, where she was raised and educated.
The question now being widely asked is this: Do Syrian leaders have serious ideas for political dialogue? Western sources close to the situation tell Fox News that it’s still unclear whether Assad has the desire - or the ability - to carry out reform.
“The Damascus government is a broken machine, that has always put emphasis on control,” they tell Fox News. “It is risk averse, and corrupt.”
Others believe Assad, trained as an eye doctor and not a career politician, has tried to push through reforms in the past but has been hamstrung by the Syrian establishment.
An estimated 100,000 Syrians have taken to the streets - out of a population of almost 25 million. Western sources many more may have turned out but were kept away by fear for their safety, while others are said to be concerned the country will erupt into sectarian violence if the Alawite-dominated Assad regime fails.
“The fact that the regime puts out that line (about potential sectarian trouble,) does not mean it is not true,” said one source.
Some Western sources believe it’s possible for the Syrian regime to regain control of the situation. But it also has a lot to lose by not promoting a bold set of reforms, and engaging in dialogue with its restive masses.
Syria was set to receive $50 billion dollars in private, foreign investment in its infrastructure over the next five years – a figure that now hangs in the balance. Tourism, which accounts for an estimated 10 percent of the economy, is all but dead. And it’s not just Europeans cancelling their trips. Gulf Arabs are also staying away, just at a time when Syria’s regional star was on the rise.
There had been much diplomatic buzz around Syria in the past several years. From President Obama to various European leaders, the trend was to engage Syria, and nurture what was believed to be a reformist streak in the country’s relatively young president. And increased business opportunities were being eyed as well.
Some are now asking if that speculation was misplaced.
“Engaging Assad was not a mistake,” insisted one source. “Isolation of Syria was not changing its behavior. You can only make a mistake if you kid yourself about results, and we didn’t have false illusions.”
That source – along with other voices - explained the difference between Assad and the former leaders of Tunisia and Egypt leaders as a generational one. Former presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were from the old generation, and considered out of touch.
Assad had not necessarily been seen that way by many Syrians. In fact, his youth and worldiness had relatively broad appeal.
But if and when he regains control of the situation, he may well be viewed differently by both his own people and the international community. Assad will have hurdles to cross to convince people, at this point, that he can transform into a reformer.