- 27 апреля 2011, 14:20
Foreign secretary says president Bashar al-Assad is viewed as a potential reformer – and may be persuaded to go down the right 'prong in the fork'
The foreign secretary, William Hague, has said it is not too late for Syria to "do the right thing" by implementing the reforms its people are calling for.
EU countries are discussing imposing sanctions on Syria if the regime continues its violent suppression of pro-democracy protests.
Opposition activists have reported continuing government attacks in the southern town of Deraa and mass arrests and the use of tanks in areas including Douma, near the capital, and Baniyas, on the coast.
Hague said a "major diplomatic effort" was under way to try to persuade the Syrian authorities to go down the right "prong in the fork" to avoid sanctions being imposed.
The foreign secretary signalled that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is still viewed as a potential reformer of his country and, as such, is not being urged to quit – unlike Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
But he added that Assad may be hampered from taking the reforming route because of other figures in his regime.
Contrasting the "very different situation" in Syria compared with Libya, which already faces diplomatic, economic and military sanctions, Hague told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that Syria was at a "very different stage" and could still choose the path of reform.
"President Assad has made two major speeches on reform in Syria – one of them was, in the eyes of most of us, too weak, and the other one was too late, but nevertheless he has made those speeches and committed himself to important reforms," Hague said.
"It is not too late for him to say he really is going to do those reforms and additional reforms."
Refusing to be drawn on a timeframe, he added: "It is not too late for him to do those things, to say the deaths that occurred will be investigated so there is a major diplomatic effort going on to try to persuade the Syrian authorities to go down that prong of the fork, the right way."
The Syrian human rights organisation Sawasiah said at least 400 civilians had been killed during a month of protests, including at least 35 in Deraa since Monday.
It said 500 people had been arrested in the past few days after the abrogation of the country's decades-old emergency law, one of several concessions by Assad widely dismissed as too little, too late.
Of Assad, with whom Hague met in January, the foreign secretary said: "You can imagine him as a reformer.
"One of the difficulties in Syria is that President Assad's power depends on a wider group of people in his own family and, of course, other members of government, and I am not sure how free he is to pursue a reform agenda, even if he wanted to do so."
The foreign secretary denied the government's tone was far softer than that adopted towards Libya.
"We are not so gentle," he said. "My statement [in the House of Commons] yesterday condemned utterly the violence and killings.
"It called for violent repression to stop, for individuals to be held accountable for the violence, for President Assad to respond to the legitimate demands of his people, that words are not enough and actions are necessary. This wasn't regarded diplomatically as gentle language, I can assure you."
Hague said diplomacy was about talking to people you disagree with and insisted he would keep the lines of communication with the Syrian regime open.
"We will urge them to do the right thing," he said. "They are being urged to do so by many other countries, including in our own region, and I appeal to them again to respect the legitimate grievances and not to engage in this repression and violence against their own people."
The difficulties of concerted international action were illustrated when members of the UN security council debated a statement criticising Syria as Russian diplomats sought to water down a European draft.
The statement would not have the legal force or direct impact of earlier resolutions against Libya. Diplomats said the Syrian government had more defenders on the international stage, and – having endured years of US sanctions already – was less vulnerable to new pressure.