Rhein on Energy and Climate

Syria will be the most repressive regime surviving in the Mediterranean after the hoped-for end of the Gaddafi clan. Since 1967 the “Assad Dynasty” has been in control of the country. An all-pervasive secret police and a powerful army have been able to impose “stability” ever since the Hama massacre in 1982. After the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt it was only a matter of time before Syrian youths, students and intellectuals would also voice their protests against 50 years of emergency laws and repression of the political opposition, though their numbers count only by thousands and are counter-balanced by regime-loyal groups.

So far, President Assad has only gesticulated reforms, exchanging his toothless government and appointing two commissions to examine the causes of the bloodshed during demonstrations and the possibility for lifting emergency. But whoever has seen his show on March 30th at the Syrian “parliament” will have strong doubts about his willingness to undertake serious political reforms – complete abolition of the emergency laws, media freedom, respect of basic human rights, the rule of law and democratic rules – which would ultimately also put an end to the monopoly of power of the Assad clan and the Alawite minority.

It is unlikely that the uprising in Syria will come to a rest despite arrests and casualties, as long as the reform process continues in other parts of the Arab world. President Assad will not easily step down from power. Confident of the support he enjoys in the Gulf states and even in Europe as a “pole of stability”, he will play for time and try to ride the waves. Europe will hardly be able to influence developments in Syria, no more than it has in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. The EU High Representative has condemned the violence and called for peaceful reforms. But her appeal has failed to weigh on Assad’s eagerness to reform. The EU should follow-up developments and, if the regime fails to introduce meaningful reforms by May, downgrade its relations with Syria. That has to be a corollary of its new doctrine of “differentiation” among its neighbour countries according to the depth and speed of their reform efforts.

It should freeze its technical and financial cooperation, however small, as well as the Association Agreement that is ready for signature; and both the EU and member states should scale down the size of their diplomatic staff. It should also assess the impact of a trade embargo which it could impose unilaterally, Syria not having joined the WTO. Such gestures will hardly impress Bashir Assad and his followers. Only if the EU can convince Turkey and Saudi Arabia to adopt a similar line might Syria start calculating the economic and political costs of falling back into isolation and becoming even more dependent on Iran. For the time being the chances of success seem, however, limited as both Turkey and Saudi-Arabia prefer a repressive stability to a lively democratic uncertainty.

This being said, Syria will hardly face a bright economic future if it fails to undertake major economic and politic reforms. Neither agriculture nor its fledgling industries and declining oil and gas sectors will create the jobs necessary to offer its mass of youngsters decent work and living standards.

EU foreign policy in the Mediterranean will become more complicated in the future. That is the price to be paid in the new era of freedom and democratic governments.

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  1. It is difficult to disagree with your position that a dynasty of dictatorship is likely to collapse of its own mismanagement or its failure to mitigate suffering. However, the increasingly uniform support of insurgents in North Africa and the Middle East is potentially misguided. Calls for withdrawal of entrenched leaders in North Africa and the ME miss a crucial point: who or what will fill the void. Normative arguments that you and others make on this controversial political issue are unconvincing precisely because they rest upon normative assumptions and lack sufficient factual data. Equally unconvincing are references to terms, such as freedom and democracy, that lack a common understanding and arguably are devoid of meaning. I would have to agree with the positions of Turkey and Saudi-Arabia as stated in your text. “Repressive stability” is preferable to a “lively uncertain democracy”, until a coherent alternative is proposed.

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