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IN a fit of new-found vigour, the Arab League is imposing sanctions on one of its own: Syria. Damascus has already been suspended for its suppression of anti-government protests, in which the United Nations claims at least 3,500 have been killed since March. The 22-nation league may not have much credibility on the bully pulpit, made up as it so recently was by the very dictatorships that the Arab Spring is sweeping away. Nevertheless, there is no other collective like it in the strife-torn region, and probably no other organisation with the same chance of effecting a mediated solution to the Syrian problem. To its embarrassment, the league had taken a back seat as North Atlantic Treaty Organisation warplanes pummelled Libya, and Col Muammar Gaddafi was dragged out of hiding and shot, perhaps in a crossfire, perhaps deliberately. It is not surprising that Syria’s neighbours now feel compelled to act — after all, many months have gone by since the death toll began ticking up after every Friday prayer.
That, however, does not mean a strong consensus has been forged. Those cheek-by-jowl with Syria — Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq — have misgivings about an economic squeeze. They fear that worsening instability could spill across borders. Also, as proven elsewhere, sanctions are a blunt instrument, more likely to harm populations than entrenched elites. Yet, short of a coup d’etat by invasion, trade and other measured restrictions appear as the only alternative, at least as seen by the United States, European Union and Turkey. The latter is a case in point. Ankara eventually felt it had to do more than soft diplomacy to induce change in its erstwhile ally.
Certainly, pressure should be applied on President Bashar al-Assad, whose promised reforms have not soothed the mounting opposition to his four-decade-old dynasty. But Syria must be treated with the utmost care. It is not Libya, whose internecine battles can be safely contained within desert expanses. Syria lies in the epicentre of Levantine tectonic plates, whose quaking could radiate shock waves across the region. Its conflict is taking on the contours of a civil war, threatening to suck in sectarian sympathisers from outside. Energetically engaging Assad is still a better bet than leaving the regime with no choice but to fight for its life.