Syria's recent Ramadan offensive, in which 300 protesters died, appears not to have deterred Syrian democrats, who are still taking to the streets in their hundreds of thousands. But it has severely affected the attitude of neighbouring states which until recently thought there was no obvious alternative to a cohesive Assad regime. Anger has grown among the largely Sunni Arab states at the scale of the attacks on their co-religionists by Assad's minority Alawite Shia henchmen.
Four Gulf governments, led by Saudi Arabia, this week withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus. Turkey, which had cultivated Assad for fear he would stir unrest in its Kurdish minority, sent its Foreign Minister to Damascus to warn that its patience was exhausted. Even President Medvedev in Russia, which has defended Syria in the UN Security Council, warned of a "sad fate" for President Assad unless he halted the carnage and began his much-promised reforms. Iran is now Syria's only ally. Internal support is also beginning to sag, with the first sounds of dissent coming from the business elite, prominent religious figures and former government stalwarts in Damascus and Aleppo.
Now is the time for the international community to act. The United States wants Europe to stop buying Syrian oil to cut off Assad's last significant inflow of hard currency. But this would hit ordinary Syrians, one third of whom rely on the regime for jobs, pensions and housing. Oil sanctions might be a propaganda gift to the Assad regime. But targeted sanctions could be tightened. And the EU could crack down on Syrian banks, and their Lebanese subsidiaries. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who made an unprecedented statement condemning Syria's "killing machine", now needs to show consistency by refusing to back the crackdown on dissent which is said to be imminent in his ally Bahrain where, in a mirror image of Syria, a Sunni minority is suppressing a Shia majority. No government should be allowed to oppress its people in these ways.Reuse content