A Shaam News Network picture shows UN monitors being watched by Syrian government soldiers on May 29
An image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network, shows UN monitors, members of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), being watched by Syrian government soldiers on May 29. © - - AFP/Shaam News Network
A Shaam News Network picture shows UN monitors being watched by Syrian government soldiers on May 29
Claire Rosemberg, AFP
Last updated: May 30, 2012

Is EU short on options to end violence in Syria?

After 15 rounds of sanctions, but split on diplomatic and military options to end the violence in Syria, Europe appears to be running short on means of pressuring President Bashar al-Assad.

Divisions over how to help end a bloody 15-month conflict threatening to erupt into civil war flew into public view Tuesday when the 27 European Union states failed to jointly expel Syrian diplomats from their respective capitals.

As a small group of leader nations, Britain, France and Germany, ordered Syrian diplomats out -- leaving a handful of others to follow in disorderly suit -- the fate of the Syrian ambassador to Belgium stood like a sore thumb.

Though declared "persona non grata" by the Belgian authorities, Mohammad Ayman Jameel Soussan cannot be expelled from Brussels as he is also Syria's envoy to the EU -- which has not adopted a similar stand.

"There are too many different interests within the EU to agree a common line," said an EU diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and the Netherlands too ordered Syrian representatives homes but Romania refused in the interests of thousands of citizens still in the country.

Hungary, Cyprus and Greece, whose Damascus embassies remain open, also stood apart.

The same dilemma surfaced in March when European nations tried and failed to stage a joint ambassadorial withdrawal from Damascus in protest against the shelling of Homs.

"We have argued that EU should have a common approach on these issues. That's how we can be effective," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter.

The bloc's fledgling foreign service, under the leadership of Catherine Ashton, can do very little as "EU diplomacy is still the lowest common denominator," said Edward Burke of the London-based Centre for European reform.

"We should stop the rhetoric and get real, come up with a plan that may be imperfect but one that reduces the violence," Burke said.

"The Russians are not completely wrong," he said of Moscow's continuing distance with the US-led line.

EU nations, like most others in the West, have in effect closed the door to dialogue with the Assad regime, declaring from the outset he must step down while at the same time shying away from the threat of military action.

In Bosnia, Burke recalled, the EU continued to talk to the Slobodan Milosevic regime despite Serbia's complicity in atrocities there.

"What I don't understand is that we throw away all communications channels with Damascus," he said.

Since anti-regime protests began in May last year, the EU has agreed 15 rounds of sanctions, from an embargo on arms, oil and trade in precious gems to an assets freeze and travel ban on 128 people at the heart of the regime -- including a bid to hit the Assad couple's luxury lifestyle.

At talks in Brussels following Friday's Houla massacre, EU ambassadors agreed "to look at possible further restrictive measures" but it was "hard to see what else to sanction", said Josef Janning of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

"Sanctions have limited effect on autistic regimes, mainly preoccupied by their own survival," he added though analysts are agreed they hurt the economy.

After ruling out a Libya-style intervention, talk has suddenly flared again of boots on the ground, with freshly-elected French socialist President Francois Hollande refusing to rule out military action -- if under a UN mandate.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, long in favour of flexing muscle, on Wednesday reiterated that his country would take part in some kind of "military presence", including security zones and a peace force to protect the UN's unarmed observers and help the respect of a ceasefire.

The air war in Libya however left Europe sorely divided, and analysts Janning and Burke termed Hollande's stand mere "rhetoric".

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