In the aftermath of the terrible murder of over 100 people in Houla, Syria, including dozens of children, Canada’s foreign minister John Baird joined a chorus of international protests against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Baird’s comments yesterday were puzzling:
"This weekend’s shocking attack merits the Security Council’s condemnation and much more. We call on the Council to take stronger diplomatic action. There must be repercussions for Assad’s refusal to implement the Security Council-endorsed Annan Peace Plan. We call on all Security Council members to come together and adopt strong measures—including economic sanctions—against the Syrian regime, to ensure that it fulfills its commitments and immediately stops the senseless slaughter of its own people."
The actions in Houla certainly merit Security Council condemnation, but Baird’s ideas about “stronger diplomatic action” and “repercussions” and “strong measures” seem to boil down to economic sanctions. When it comes to economic sanctions, however, the biggest screws have already been turned. The EU, Syria’s largest trade partner (see chart below), along with the Arab League, have imposed comprehensive sanctions.
Source: BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15753975
It’s true that a UN sanctions regime, including an arms embargo, would by implication bring Russia into this tent, which would be important because Russia remains Syria’s principal weapons supplier. But if we’re talking about economic sanctions, strong measures are already in place and have shown no sign of changing Assad’s behaviour or undermining his bases of support within Syria.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a concerted effort by the US and Europe underway to convince Russia that it is possible to negotiate Assad’s departure while leaving the basic framework of his regime in place (along with Russia’s strategic foothold in Syria). This, and not vague calls for sanctions, may be the last hope for diplomatic resolution of this crisis short of an even more devastating civil war.