Early in the morning of 24 August, a man was dragged out of his car by masked members of Syrian security services in Damascus. He was viciously beaten, mainly on his hands. His name is Ali Ferzat, and he is one of the Arab world’s most famous political cartoonists. His “crime” was to have published too many cartoons vilifying the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown against protest and political dissent.
I would be surprised if many readers of this post had heard of this attack or seen any of Ali Ferzat’s cartoons. In fact, I only found out about it yesterday. This is a symptom of a problem with our media: both in the UK and here in Sweden, the bleeding of the Syrian people has fallen off the news agenda. This post is a small attempt to redress that, along with other Swedish bloggers who have blogged about Syria yesterday. Cecilia Johnsson, Ida Mörk and Bonnie Peterson all ask why news from Syria is eclipsed on newspaper websites not just by scenes of liberation in Tripoli but also by a grill party at the house of Sweden’s star footballer. As Dana Pourkomeylian argues, we rely on the media to inform us about what is going on in the world. Two sentences on the radio news bulletin doesn’t cut it when you’re reporting the murder of abour 80 people by Syrian army tanks.
It is striking that the American and British response to continued atrocities in Syria has been rather more robust than that of Sweden and the EU as a group. While the US has already called for Assad to stand down, a position supported by the UK, France and Germany in a joint statement, the Syrian ambassador remains in Stockholm and Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt refuses to demand Assad’s resignation. He wrote on his blog:
We recognise countries – not governments. And we recognise realities – not ambitions.
Other countries – not least but not only the great powers – sometimes deal with these issues in a different way, but we have never considered that to be particularly wise.
Naturally situations will occur from time to time which are not clear under these principles.
But in these situations too it is usually wise – not least because of the risk of setting a precedent – to try to keep as close to the established principles as possible
The problem with this argument is that in practice Sweden does recognise ambitions rather than realities. Just to take one example, like most countries Sweden recognises the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, an unelected group that barely controls Mogadishu and faces challenges both from a vicious Islamist group and from the breakaway regions of Puntland and Somaliland. In fact, Sweden is co-hosting a donor conference for the TFG. According to Bildt’s principles, surely Sweden should recognise the stable and elected government of Somaliland? Of course Somaliland is not recognised as a country by any other countries, though some provide aid in areas like police training.
Sanctions are a similar story: the US government has banned American individuals and companies from doing business with Syria. As a result, Visa and Mastercard cards no longer work in Syria. The US has also slapped sanctions on the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, who it accuses of complicity in the disappearances of a number of Syrian activists who were living in Lebanon. I have written about Syria’s threats against Syrian refugees in Lebanon before, and it appears that the arm of Assad’s thugs reaches as far as Paris and Santiago.
In comparison to robust American sanctions, the EU effort is a bit of a half measure. Oil trading has now been banned, but with an exception for current contracts running until 15 November (after Italian insistence). And European companies are not yet banned from investing or doing business in Syria, which spares the blushes of oil companies like Total and Royal Dutch Shell.
The Liberal Youth of Sweden has suggested that military intervention should be considered, but like Bawar Ismail I think that is a non-starter. Syrian protesters are regularly braving live fire to take to the streets without any weapons, and they do not want NATO bombs. The weight of international outrage and the impact of stopping petroleum imports (tanks need fuel, after all) should be enough to tip the scales to the side of the suffering Syrian people.