Joan Smith: We wine and dine dictators who should be deposed

The choice in Syria may be military action or civil war

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Day after day, evidence of fresh massacres emerges in Syria. On Friday, journalists finally got access to a village in the province of Hama where they found evidence of a bloodbath, but this region is no stranger to bloodshed. The current president's uncle launched an all-out assault on the city of Hama 30 years ago, bombing it from the air and killing many thousands of civilians. Those who survived were finished off by troops who advanced into the shattered city, just as Assad-supporting shabiha are accused of doing in village after village in recent weeks.

In the past few months, Syria has hardly been out of the headlines, but the 1982 Hama massacre attracted little attention outside the country. The old dictator, Hafez al-Assad, was left largely to his own devices, except when he became a little too generous in his support for international terrorism, while his son Bashar was feted in Downing Street by Tony Blair in 2002. It was one of a series of initiatives in which Blair tried to build cordial relations with Arab despots, in the mistaken belief that treating them like legitimate heads of state would persuade them to amend their behaviour. It didn't work with the younger Assad or Colonel Gaddafi, who continued to torture and murder his own people until he was overthrown with the help of a Nato bombing campaign last year.

Given David Cameron's role in that mission, it is surprising that his government hasn't yet learnt from Blair's kid-gloves treatment of leaders with poor human rights records. Last month, ministers did nothing as the Queen unwisely lunched with the King of Bahrain at Windsor Castle. Last week at a lunch in London she met the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is accused of presiding over grotesque human rights abuses by government forces in the final days of Sri Lanka's civil war, including the discovery of bound and stripped female bodies, almost certainly rape victims. Protesters jeered Rajapaksa's car as it arrived in Pall Mall, and he was forced to cancel a keynote speech in the City of London for which guests had paid £795.

Downing Street swiftly released an account of Cameron's conversation with Rajapaksa, insisting that the Prime Minister had raised the question of human rights abuses, but the damage was done. Appearing at events such as the jubilee is a PR gift to heads of state with poor human rights records, giving the impression that they're just like any world leader. It also encourages a sense of impunity, as Fred Carver, director of the Sri Lanka campaign, pointed out last week. "It is likely Assad learnt some lessons from the way the international community tolerated civilian casualties in Sri Lanka," he said. "What lessons will Assad learn from seeing how quickly the international community rehabilitates those responsible?"

It's a lesson the younger Assad learnt a long time ago. After a brief experiment in relaxing his father's harsh regime, Bashar quickly reverted to type. Political prisoners were hideously tortured in prisons on the outskirts of Damascus and at Tadmur, while his glamorous British wife provided a diversion for a largely uncritical foreign press. The new president made so many enemies that it was a near-certainty that his own people would one day turn on him, with extremely bloody consequences. What we're witnessing is a fight to the death between a hardened cadre of Assad loyalists, who have benefited from his profoundly corrupt regime, and a brave but divided opposition.

We feel like helpless observers as news of fresh atrocities emerges. But public anger is ineffectual as long as the UN is hampered by the intransigence of Russia and China, and the danger of a regional conflict involving Iran can't be brushed aside. It's also difficult for democratic nations to know which factions of the opposition to support when most are unknown quantities. Two days ago, a Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, called on opposition groups to unite, but it's not easy to see how this clearly desirable end can be achieved. Some are religious, others secular, and a single unifying leader has yet to emerge. Western governments are in a frustrating situation; they know that millions want them to do something to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but they simply don't know enough about what's going on inside the country.

There's now a powerful argument for heads of government with poor human rights records to be ostracised, instead of invited to grand lunches and dinners. It's good news that British ministers will not attend the initial stages of Euro 2012 because of Ukraine's treatment of the jailed opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, but the Government should announce a boycott of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka unless President Rajapaksa cooperates with an independent investigation into alleged war crimes in the country. Future leaders should be identified and helped to build an effective opposition inside or outside despotic regimes.

Western governments have spent too much time appeasing nasty governments. Assad plans to kill as many opponents as possible, and the best hope may be that China and Russia realise he's fuelling a sectarian conflict and ditch him. But the choice may come down to international military intervention or civil war.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

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