The Obama administration’s position on Syria is clear. Administration officials have said that Bashar Assad’s days are numbered and affirmed that the goal is a “democratic transition” that would see Assad deposed from power. President Obama has added moral urgency to the situation, condemning Assad’s brutal 11-month crackdown on dissent and vowing that “cruelty must be confronted for the sake of justice and human dignity.” For all the forcefulness of its intentions, though, the administration has yet to spell out a concrete course for ousting Assad and ending the violence.
Diplomacy seems to be the administration’s preferred strategy for regime change, at least judging from the desperate way in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to win Russian support for a UN Security Council resolution backing Assad’s exit. But as Russia and China’s obdurate refusal to part ways with Assad shows, there will be no such unanimity at the UN. Neither country seems to have been moved by Syria’s humanitarian crisis, as UN ambassador Susan Rice’s admonition that both countries “will have any future blood spilled on their hands” plainly has fallen on deaf ears.
Russia and China’s backing isn’t necessary to tighten sanctions or to seize the regime’s finances abroad, but these measures may have reached diminishing returns. Switzerland and the EU have already frozen Assad and his lieutenants’ assets and it’s not clear how much more can be done on this front. Powerful economic sanctions have already been pushed through by the European Union, Turkey, and the Arab League, meanwhile, and while their impact will certainly be felt in Damascus it’s unlikely to be decisive. As international sanctions expert Daniel Drezner points out, sanctions alone rarely collapse regimes as determined to hold on to power as Assad’s.
The administration’s least-preferred option – the use of force – is also unlikely. Although the Department of Defense has said that it is reviewing all options for Syria, the administration has been at pains to stress that it has not been considering a Libya-style military intervention. Speaking with NBC’s Matt Lauer last Sunday, President Obama stressed that it is “very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention.” Obama added that he thought that was “possible.”
This reluctance may seems strange coming from the Obama administration, particularly considering its willingness to use force in Libya, where Moammar Qadaffi only threatened the kind of collective punishment and humanitarian disaster that Assad has already inflicted on Syrians. But according to national security reporter Laura Rozen, the administration considers Syria a different case for several reasons.
First, Syria’s location matters more than Libya’s. Syria’s neighbors – Iraq, Israel, Turkey – make the threat of regional instability arising from military intervention far more worrying. There is also the matter of Syria’s internal sectarian divisions and its fractured political opposition. Not only are there long-running tensions between the majority Sunnis and the Alawaite sect of Assad, but there is feuding even among the two leading opposition groups, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body, who fell out most recently after disagreeing about the use of foreign force against Assad.
Finally, thanks to arms deals with Russia, Syria has more formidable defenses than Libya, which could make it difficult to impose a no-fly zone. According to sources in the Israeli military, Syria possesses one the world’s most sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, with over 200 anti-aircraft batteries. To be sure, similar warnings were issued prior to NATO’s intervention in Libya. When the smoke cleared, Qaddafi’s anti-aircraft guns proved no match for NATO’s superior aerial campaign.
With military intervention effectively a non-starter, the one remaining possibility is arming the internal opposition against Assad, a strategy backed by Senator John McCain among others. For all practical purposes, that would mean the Syrian Free Army (SFA). Despite lacking structure and organization and being mostly limited to small arms and improvised explosive devices, the SFA has proved a force to be reckoned with. It has engaged government forces in six of Syria’s 14 provinces, inflicting significant casualties.
Still, it remains an unknown quantity. It’s unclear, for instance, how many of the rebel fighters are members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, though some surely are. Hama, the site of a famous 1982 massacre by Assad’s father Hafez Assad and more recently of intense clashes between Assad’s army and rebels, is a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. Even if arming the rebels is worth the gamble to defeat Assad, it’s a gamble that, for now at least, the Obama administration has rejected.
That leaves the U.S. with few good options. In the meantime, Syria’s human-nightmare continues as government forces step up their assault on opposition towns and cities. In the rebel city of Homs, 126 people were reported killed on Thursday alone. Syrian opposition groups claimed that the army shelled the town, leaving people to bleed to death on the streets while snipers picked off civilians running for cover. Hospitals and medical personal and patients have also been targeted. The death toll has risen to 7,000 since the uprising began last March. Worse, there appears to be no end in sight.
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