The Syrian Impasse

Why hopes for Syrian regime change are futile.

The Obama administration’s recall of the US ambassador from Syria signals the latest diplomatic impasse between the United States and Syria. Despite eight months of diplomatic initiatives and economic sanctions, Syrian President Bashar Assad shows no signs of moving aside.

Citing “credible threats” against his personal safety, the United States recalled Robert Ford from his post as US ambassador to Syria. The State Department said Ford’s return to Damascus would be contingent upon an “assessment of Syrian regime-led incitement and the security situation on the ground.” The reaction by the Syrian government to the decision was to immediately recall its own ambassador from Washington.

Ford’s security has been in growing jeopardy since July 2011 when he visited the Syrian city of Hama and was greeted warmly by anti-government protesters. Ford’s welcome prompted Syrian authorities to incite hundreds of pro-government sympathizers to attack the US embassy in Damascus, where they smashed windows and spray-painted obscenities on the walls.

From that point on, Ford has been the subject of several incidents of intimidation by pro-Assad supporters, including one in which he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes while going to a mosque in Damascus.

While the Obama administration was quick to point out that Ford’s recall was not a formal breakdown in relations with Syria, the move underscores the failure to date of diplomatic initiatives and economic sanctions to either dislodge Assad from power or force him to enter into negotiations with Syrian dissidents.

The latest efforts against the Syrian regime include a new series of economic sanctions -- on top of the ones already levied on Syria’s banking and oil sectors -- by the European Union. They also include diplomatic efforts by the Arab League to host talks between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, an effort which has been rejected by both sides.

This latter rejection certainly makes sense given that Syrian President Bashar has steadfastly maintained that the uprising against his government, which began in March, has been fomented by “armed terrorists groups” carrying out a “foreign agenda,” resulting in the deaths of over 1,100 Syrian army and police personnel.

For its part, the Syrian National Transition Council, formed in early October as the leading voice of the Syrian protest movement, won’t negotiate until Assad stops his murderous assault against Syria’s civilian protesters, assaults which to date have produced an estimated 3,000 deaths and over 10,000 wounded.

Unfortunately, Assad continues to have his security forces ratchet up the violence to new and disturbing levels, with the latest deadly killings coming when Syrian tank forces killed at least 25 people in the Syrian city of Homs.

Syrian security forces have also been accused of arresting an estimated 250 doctors and pharmacists treating wounded anti-government protesters since the start of the uprising. In one case, Human Rights Watch said Syrian security forces “forcibly removed” patients from a hospital and prevented doctors from reaching the wounded during a military siege in Homs.

Even escaping Syria can’t guaranteed one’s safety as reports have surfaced of Syrian refugees and activists in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan being kidnapped by Syrian intelligence agents and forced back into Syria.

Of course, Bashar Assad’s continued resistance to stepping down from power may have been stiffened by the video images of Muammar Gadhafi being dragged out of a drainage ditch and summarily executed, his corpse dragged through the streets before it was buried in an unmarked grave deep in the Libyan Desert.

So, in an effort to spare himself a similar fate, Assad in a recent interview gave a pointed warning as to the costs of a NATO-led military intervention against his regime, saying, “Syria is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake. Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”

While some have dismissed those comments by Assad as simply “playing up to the fears of the West at the moment,” the reality is that launching a military strike against Syria would entail a far more dangerous risk than the one launched against Libya. For starters, unlike Libya, Syria has a host of powerful allies that won’t sit idly by and watch Assad go under, chief among them Iran, Russia and China.

Russia and China already feel they were burned by the United States, France and Britain for overstepping the mandate of UN resolution 1973, which called for the introduction of a UN no-fly zone over Libya designed to protect Libyan civilians.

That mission, however, quickly morphed into an exercise of regime change, one in which NATO helped topple Gadhafi’s regime by launching more than 26,000 airstrikes against pro-Gadhafi forces.

So, when France in early October pushed a similar UN resolution that called for the UN Security Council to take “responsibilities” and sanction the “bloody repression” in Syria, both Russia and China, believing it would be a pretext for an attack on their Syrian ally, vetoed the resolution

For his part, Assad has already indicated that he won’t be content to simply wait for outside help to save his regime. Assad, along with Syria’s proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah, has reportedly pledged to launch its huge arsenal of rockets and missiles at Israel if Syria is attacked, a prospect that would all but guarantee the beginning of a large scale regional war.

Therefore, it is understandable that NATO is much more hesitant this time to invoke the military option, evidenced by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who told reporters in Libya that he could “completely rule out” a NATO-led strike on Syria.

Yet, while NATO may be ruling out a possible military strike on Syria, some still cling to that hope. That view was voiced by Senator John McCain, who days ago said, “Now that military operations in Libya are ending, there will be renewed focus on what practical military operations might be considered to protect civilian lives in Syria.”

While McCain’s views may not represent the best answer to the Syrian situation, at least he’s not alone. Jordan’s King Abdullah recently said, “I am one of the most optimistic people you’ll meet in the Middle East, but…I don't think there’s anybody in the region or outside who knows how to tackle the Syria issue.”

With no end in sight to Bashar Assad’s rule and Syria drifting ever closer toward full scale sectarian civil war, finding an answer to the Syrian problem grows more elusive and imperative by the day.

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