Obama’s Syrian Conundrum

The United States struggle to come up with a way to hurt Assad.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010 (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)

The revolt in Syria is growing out of control and last weekend was the turning point. The total death tally during those two days was unprecedented for the uprising with some one hundred Syrian protesters killed by Bashar al-Assad’s security forces on Friday alone.

Assad’s regime has clearly shown its hand. For one, the killings last weekend illustrated how serious the Syrian government is taking the protests, which can easily be considered the largest rebellion since the Muslim Brotherhood rose up against the Assad dynasty in the early 1980s. That revolt was crushed by Syrian authorities in the city of Hama. 

Concessions, such as the introduction of a political parties bill, the dissolution of the Emergency Laws, the formation of a new cabinet and the release of hundreds of prisoners, have failed to meet the intended effect of dividing the opposition. Instead, since those concessions were handed out, the protesters have become bolder in their demands. What once was a plea for general political and economic reform from President Assad has snowballed into a revolutionary movement against his very rule.

The government got the message but responded with tactics that are far harsher and indiscriminate. In addition to the nearly five hundred Syrian protesters who have died during the past six weeks of clashes, the Syrian army has rolled into the city of Daraa, where the demonstrations began, and has arrested anyone who is deemed a threat to the stability of the country.

With Syrian body bags piling up, the Obama Administration is caught in a bind. Similar to the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, President Barack Obama’s National Security Council has hinged its bets on a reactive policy — expressing outrage when Syrians are killed but asking the regime doing the killing to enact reforms before the rebellion becomes impossible to control. This week, the White House has ratcheted up its rhetoric and has begun looking at alternatives to a “wait and see” policy.

So what, if anything, can the United States do to compel Assad to silence his guns?

Former Bush Administration official Elliot Abrams argues that the president must not only get tougher in his language but far tougher in his action. “The president has been slow to react,” according to Abrams, which is “inexcusable in the face of the mounting death toll.” There even appears to be confusion within the administration over its Syria policy, with some in the Treasury Department preparing for a new round of economic sanctions and others in the State Department asking for clarification.

There are reports indicating that the United States are attempting to push through more sanctions against the Syrian government, including asset freezes of top Syrian officials implicated in the ongoing massacre. Other journalists are speculating that Obama’s newly appointed ambassador to the country, Robert Ford, will be called back, once again cutting of Damascus from American diplomatic power.

Whatever tactic the administration chooses, the fact of the manner is that each will fall short of applying any real or substantial pressure on the Syrian regime. US-Syrian relations have been cold for the past ten years. The George W. Bush Administration passed a numerous financial sanction package against Syria in 2004. Separate American sanctions have been levied on Assad for his support of Hamas and Hezbollah, two organizations that are regarded by the United States, Europe and Israel as terrorist groups seeking to destabilize the region. With American trade to Syria negligent as it is, economic measures are unlikely to prove decisive.

The withdrawal of the American ambassador sends a strong diplomatic warning but probably wouldn’t do much to influence Assad. Syria has survived the past five years without American diplomatic recognition. Another year will simply be viewed by the Syrian leadership as more of the same.

If economic sanctions were to be deployed, then appealing to the European Union would be America’s best bet. The EU is Syria’s largest trading partner in the world. In 2009 alone, the Europeans imported $2.3 billion worth of Syrian products, a crucial chunk of change in a monetarily strapped and politically isolated regime.

Absent European support, as well as Russian and Chinese acquiescence, the possibilities of another unilateral American sanctions regiment will do little, if nothing, to limit the violence.