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Averting a Damascene Blood Bath

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The Syrian city of Deraa is rapidly becoming the Tahrir Square of the escalating Syrian revolution, but with the regime promising "no more room for leniency or tolerance", who or what will prevent a repeat of the Hama massacre of 1982?

The Western appetite for intervention, supposedly drained by the fiasco of Iraq and never-ending specter of Afghanistan, came alive at the prospect of the fall of Benghazi and the potential death of thousands. But with momentum in Libya significantly stalled what will the international community be able to do to prevent the Syrian regime from pursuing draconian measures to quell its swelling protests?

This is a very real prospect. Assad Sr. biographer Patrick Seale is likely right when he warns that, "the regime has decided to fight back with full force". Some 200 people have reportedly been killed already, with the death toll from Friday at over 37. Human Rights Activists have said that "the secret police have been rounding up every outspoken figure they can get their hands on" with Fayez Sara, a journalist who was jailed for two-and-a-half years along with 11 Damascus Declaration members and released in 2010, arrested again on Sunday. Reports from Syria suggest that elite Republican Guard snipers have been deployed and Al Jazeera highlighted the closure of roads to Deraa, tanks surrounding Banias and the construction of earth mounds blocking access to the restive cities.

Assad is often quoted as saying that he would rather take Syria slowly in the right direction than quickly in the wrong one. But today his rapid series of promises, including a potentially reformed emergency law, more citizenship for the Kurds, concessions for Islamic groups and the sacking of his parliament have failed to halt the deadly momentum of protests. Conceivably the reason for the stark warnings issued through the state news agency is that the regime has run out of carrots and only has sticks left. These sticks will have been sharpened by the ambush that killed 19 members of the security forces near Banias and the news that the leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammad Riad Shaqfa, has declared his support for pro-democracy protesters.

Revenge is in the air.

This puts the international community in a tight spot. The US has no desire to expand its already overstretched commitments -- Hilary Clinton going so far to refer to US Congress members' description of Assad as a potential 'reformer'. However US reluctance to lead a response proved a blessing in the decision to create a no-fly zone over Libya and could again allow the Europeans a chance to prove that they can be an effective global power.

How could this happen? After showing all its flaws in the case of Libya, Cathy Ashton's External Action Service should come to the fore in the case of Syria. Ashton needs to lead the way in conducting fast paced and forceful engagement based upon ensuring that Syria is made aware of the consequences of any decision to use heavy handed tactics on its own people. Ashton has already urged the Syrian authorities in 'strongest terms' to put an immediate end to the violence and she must maintain EU unity to ensure that the full force of European diplomatic and economic sanctions is behind her.

Syria has spent much of the past six years trying to escape the international isolation led by the US and will be loath to face a fresh European-led economic/diplomatic boycott that is supported by all the main players in the EU. The European bloc is Syria's largest trade partner with total trade amounting to approximately €5.4 billion in 2009, covering 23.1% of Syrian trade. Damage to this relationship could fatally undermine President Assad's attempt to pursue the China model of economic reform without political opening. The current crisis has already caused the Syrian economy to come to a halt -- with the Syria Report stating that "protests had ended hopes of an economic recovery". The stock market has dropped 20% and the violence has led European travelers to stay away from what was rapidly emerging as the off the beaten track tourist gem.

The EU should make the regime aware that they don't hold a monopoly over carrots and sticks. The fate of Syria's potential full membership European Neighborhood Policy and the country's accession to the World Trade Organization should be placed front and center of private negotiations. Privacy will allow the Syrians a face saving mechanism to make concessions whilst ensuring that the regime is made clear that the future of its economy will be determined by living up to the responsibility to protect and not kill its own citizens.