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Syria’s decision to lift the 48-year old state of emergency should not stop the European Union from pressing for more change and reform in the country. President Bashar al-Assad must be warned to halt any more action by security forces against protestors, whether in Homs, Deraa, Damascus or elsewhere.

There is no time to waste. It is still not clear if the lifting of the state of emergency will quell protests. But since protestors are now demanding wide-spread change and reform, it is likely to be a question of too little, too late.

Quick action is needed not just to enhance Europe’s battered credibility as a foreign policy actor and ensure stability in Syria, a key regional power. After Libya, it is about making sure that another Arab awakening does not descend into tragic violence.

The Syrian Interior Ministry’s ominous warning to protestors that there is “no more room for leniency or tolerance” has to be taken seriously. Europe cannot sit back and allow a repeat of the Hama massacre of 1982 when 20,000 civilians were killed by Syrian security forces.

This time lack of European leverage in the Middle East cannot be used as an argument. The EU is not without clout in Damascus. Syria, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, is not an ally of the United States. It is part of the EU’s neighbourhood policy, a recipient of EU aid and trade concessions.

The EU is Syria’s largest trade partner with total trade amounting to approximately €5.4 billion in 2009, covering 23.1% of Syrian trade. Brussels and Syria are close to signing an association agreement. It’s now time to use that leverage.

Reports from Syria indicate that at least 18 protesters have died in clashes since President Assad on April 16 ordered a newly-appointed cabinet to make changes to defuse dissent. Anti-government protesters have held demonstrations for the past five weeks and clashed with Syrian security forces on Fridays after the weekly Muslim prayers. At least 130 people have been killed in the unrest that started in mid-March, according to Human Rights Watch.

The turmoil poses a serious challenge to Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago. The regime has responded to the protests by blaming foreign conspirators.

Given the risk of more violence and killings, Europe must take the lead in demanding change and reform in Syria. EU foreign ministers’ call earlier this month for an immediate end to the use of force by security forces against peaceful demonstrators should be followed up by forceful action – trade and aid sanctions, visa restrictions, financial assets freeze – if there is no satisfactory response.

The European Parliament is right to demand a suspension of talks on a future Association Agreement with Syria until Damascus agrees to carry out “expected tangible democratic reforms.”

The resignation of Syria’s government on March 29 “will not be enough to satisfy the growing frustrations of the people”, the Parliament’s resolution said, adding that in addition to lifting the state of emergency, President Assad must put an end to repression of political opposition and human right defenders and undertake genuine political, economic and social reforms.

The Parliament has also called for independent investigation into the attacks on protesters and an end to arms sales to Syria.

EU foreign ministers have been more cautious but said they could “review policy” if the situation does not improve. Recent events are proof that the EU needs to get much tougher in its message to the Syrians.

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