So far sanctions have proven ineffective. The EU should instead focus its efforts on insisting on an international consensus to deliver humanitarian aid to crisis-torn Syria, believes security expert Luis Peral.
Luis Peral is a Senior Researcher with the European Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) in Paris.
DW: Syria's ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, has defected, turning against President Assad. Is this the beginning of a wave of high-ranking officials turning their backs on the regime?
Luis Peral: It's of course too early to say. But some important generals have already defected from the army to the Free Syrian Army, as well as some high-ranking officials. This is probably the first case in the diplomatic realm, and it could of course be the first of a series of defections. It's too early to think of the collapse of the regime. We're still far from that situation.
In your view, what has happened so that high-ranking officials and diplomats feel it's safe now to turn against President Assad?
The situation is complex, but the regime is not very strong, it doesn't have full control in some regions in the North and in some cities any more. But the opposition is still very weak. There's a high sense of insecurity. And in this situation there are some who are playing their own cards. It just depends on the personal contact they have with the different factions of the regime and of the opposition. They're largely personal choices. There's no general trend so far.
The think-tank you work for issues recommendations to the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. What should the EU do now?
Some of the recommendations are of course confidential. But in general terms - and this is a message to European states, but also to others who are part of the group of the Friends of Syria - I believe that it's time now to concentrate on humanitarian aid and on the humanitarian needs of the population in Syria. There are more than one million, almost 1.5 million people, who are affected by the conflict that are in need of some assistance.
I believe that the international community needs to work on this consensus, including countries like Iran and Russia and others. It's not time now to concentrate on crimes committed against humanity. This usually takes two decades to be dealt with by international courts. What's sad is that in terms of humanitarian aid, most donors are not fulfilling their commitments; they're not supplying the money they had pledged.
But on the ground the situation is dangerous. A plan a few months ago to deliver humanitarian aid failed because of the ongoing violence.
Yes, and that's why more action is needed. The Syrian Red Crescent is overwhelmed. They're not necessarily the best actor to deliver humanitarian assistance now because they were also acting in times of peace, and that means they were close to the regime. It's difficult for them to keep strict neutrality - even if they did get aid from the International Red Cross. That's why an international consensus is needed. That has to be the first step. Then there can be discussions on the political transitions, etc. But unless we have an international consensus on humanitarian aid, all the rest will be difficult to achieve.
Humanitarian aid can't directly end the violence that's going on, however. So what do you think of the idea to introduce further sanctions as part of a draft resolution Western countries are to present to the United Nations Security Council?
Well, you can't find a solution for anything if you don't tackle the humanitarian crisis. First, you need to have access to the population. You need to create certain protected areas for the population. And then you can think about how to achieve political transition. When the international community discarded the option of use of force that in my opinion allowed the regime to continue without any change on the political level, too.
UN special envoy Kofi Annan has tried to take a different approach. But his job is being made very difficult by the regime on the ground. So how you can actually get access to the population?
It's very, very difficult. But some humanitarian donors have to start thinking more about their inability to fulfill their basic commitments. I think it's striking that the United Nations asked for $300 million to be pledged, and only $25 million have been disbursed so far. You need the money on the table, to increase pressure on the United Nations. You can't just say 'the situation is too difficult, that's why we can't disburse the money.' Think of the situation in Bosnia in the 1990s - donor countries supplied more than 100 percent of what was pledged.
Let me come back to the planned next round of sanctions. More than 100 private individuals and entities are already subject to sanctions. Could more sanctions actually have an impact?
Sanctions have proven ineffective. It's not an important aspect for the Assad regime. They rather ask themselves whether the opposition is armed and whether it's strong enough to control part of the country. But when the international community discarded the option of use of force, all the appeals were bound to be ineffective afterwards.
As much as the international community is divided, there's at least agreement that the violence has to end. There are two resolutions on the table - one by the West with sanctions, the other by Russia without. The UN will have to pass a vote before the mandate of the special mission ends next week, on July 20th. What do you think will the UN agree on?
Russia and the Western members agree on the idea of extending the mandate of the special mission. Which, incidentally, isn't doing very much. They're currently in their hotel and not able to fulfill their mandate. I would hope that the UN is able to reach some consensus on monitoring the humanitarian situation and trying to reach the victims, but that's not likely to happen, because efforts are focused on the Annan plan. Russia has endorsed this plan, but the problem is that the plan is inefficient in many ways. There are no deadlines, for instance, or there are no mechanisms in place in case the regime and the opposition don't reach an agreement on who will be part of the transitional government.
My feeling is that Western countries and Russia are in the process of rebuilding Cold War tensions, and other, more important countries such as the Arab neighbors, are being sidelined. So the European Union should do more to ease these tensions with Russia.
Some people have been arguing that the desire for change has to come from Syrians themselves. With more and more high-ranking members turning their backs on the regime, does the EU have some kind of pressure mechanism at its disposal which would help further encourage this development?
The EU is in my view not really an actor when it comes to Syria, precisely because it was not an actor in Libya. It was member states to NATO who intervened in Libya, and the EU was sidelined. I don't see that there is consensus in Brussels. Perhaps the only way the EU could become an actor would be if it insisted on the humanitarian level of the crisis, but not on the political level. It has to act through the United Nations or a different body.
Interview: Nina Haase, Brussels
Editor: Rob Mudge