The Last Stand of Bashar al-Assad?
With more blood in the streets of Syria, can Washington apply enough pressure to finally bring down the tyrant in Damascus?
DOHA, Qatar — As Bashar al-Assad’s shock troops storm cities and towns across Syria, leaving a death toll in the triple digits that has only stoked the fires of rebellion even hotter, Barack Obama’s administration is stepping up measures aimed at fatally weakening the Syrian dictator’s regime.
Critics of the U.S. president’s policy, particularly on the right, have long charged his administration with being soft on Assad. But the United States is now unequivocally committed to his ouster, having lost whatever little faith it had in the Syrian leader’s willingness to reform. "He is illegitimate," a senior administration official says flatly. "We’ve definitely been very clear that we don’t see Assad in Syria’s future."
To that end, the administration is working closely with its European allies and Turkey, seeking to steadily ratchet up the pressure on a regime that analysts, including within the government, increasingly see as doomed. "All of the factors that keep the regime in power are trending downward," the senior official says, pointing to a swiftly collapsing economy and worsening "cohesion" within the regime. "Assad is in on every decision, without a doubt, but as time goes on there’s more infighting."
So far, the revolt has mostly taken place outside the seat of power, beginning in rural towns like Daraa and spreading to larger hubs such as Hama and Homs. But as the demonstrations creep closer to the regime’s strongholds in Aleppo and Damascus, the State Department is seeing signs that a number of Assad’s supporters, including Christians, some Alawites, and a few big Sunni businessmen, are starting to distance themselves from the regime because they are starting to assess the president as a liability — a view the U.S. Embassy in Damascus is assiduously trying to cultivate behind the scenes.
But Syria is, to borrow a phrase from White House advisor Samantha Power, a problem from hell — a brutal state with a fragile ethnosectarian makeup that straddles the region’s most dangerous fault lines, from the Sunni-Shiite divide to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unlike Libya, Syria matters in regional geopolitics, and nobody has any illusions that Assad will go down easily. "It’s going to get bloody, and it’s going to be a slow-motion train wreck," warns Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Assad’s fury has been felt most keenly in Hama, where his father famously killed thousands in the 1980s, and in Deir al-Zor, an eastern city on the Euphrates River that has slipped out of the government’s control. Human rights groups say the death toll rose as high as 142 on Sunday, July 31, and activist Facebook pages displayed dozens of gruesome videos showing the bodies of those killed in the assaults, the vast majority of them in Hama, where government troops have been furiously shelling the city. Some of the dead were said to have been run over by tanks.
"They’re doing the only thing they know how to do, which is kill people," says Shakeeb Al-Jabri, an opposition activist in Beirut.
The international community has not been silent. Obama reacted quickly and angrily on Sunday, denouncing the attacks as "horrifying" and vowing to increase the pressure on Assad’s regime and work toward a democratic transition. British Foreign Secretary William Hague demanded on Monday, Aug. 1, that the U.N. Security Council issue a resolution to "condemn this violence, to call for the release of political prisoners, and call for legitimate grievances to be responded to." Even Russia finally spoke out against its ally, declaring, "The use of force against Syria’s civilian population and state agencies is inadmissible and must cease." (It only took an estimated 2,000 dead Syrians for the Russians to get there.)
A Security Council resolution, as Hague himself acknowledged, seems unlikely: Beijing and Moscow have resisted all attempts to take meaningful action against Assad, citing the Libya precedent. The United States has been pushing — aggressively, the administration insists — for a resolution condemning the crackdown, but has run into opposition not only from veto holders China and Russia but also from temporary council members Brazil, India, Lebanon, and South Africa. Attempts to refer Syrian officials to the International Criminal Court would run into the same roadblock because the Security Council would have to do the referring.
But the politics may shift if the bloodshed continues to escalate throughout the holy month of Ramadan, as many expect it will, and the world is confronted with the prospect of hundreds, perhaps thousands, more bodies in the streets. "I have no doubt that the dynamics on the ground will embarrass those standing in the way," says Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Doha Center and a former U.N. official in the Levant. Shaikh argues for a hard push at the Security Council to hold an escalating swath of Syrian officials accountable for the slaughter. "I don’t see how else we’re going to get these people to take notice," he says.
Shaikh also advocates putting together an informal "contact group" of concerned countries — as with Libya — with a core group perhaps consisting of the United States, France, Qatar, and Turkey. But the all-important Turks, who share a border with Syria and have hosted thousands of refugees and several opposition meetings, are still hedging their bets. Sunday’s statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry called on the Syrian government to "end the operations and resort to political methods, dialogue and peaceful initiatives in order to reach a solution" — options that the protest movement explicitly abandoned several weeks ago.
The European Union’s position comes across as similarly cautious, the product of an institution that operates by consensus. "The only way out of this crisis is through a genuine inclusive national dialogue with the opposition," EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said Sunday. The European Union did announce fresh sanctions on Monday, with asset freezes and travel bans on five additional Syrian officials, but harsher measures that Tabler argues could really damage the regime — targeting the oil and gas revenues that help keep the Syrian government afloat — are so far off the table. The United States already maintains unilateral sanctions against the Syrian regime and top figures within it, but more could be done to choke off its sources of income, says Tabler.
Syrians aren’t holding their collective breath. "We can’t really expect much from the international community," says Jabri, and most Syrians are wary of external involvement in their struggle. The fractious opposition — which is only loosely connected to the street protesters, in many cases — is concentrating its efforts instead on building consensus and proving to Syrians that it is a viable alternative to Assad, a task made all the more difficult by the reality that until recently, as Jabri puts it, "no two Syrians could get together and talk about politics without ending up in jail." New meetings are being planned both within Syria and abroad, possibly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
If international pressure and the opposition aren’t a sure bet, what seems clear is that Assad is in deep trouble. A report last month by the International Crisis Group, reviewing the Syrian president’s erratic strategy for containing the protests — crackdowns followed by half-baked reforms and vague promises, followed by more crackdowns — concluded that "in its attempts to survive at all costs, the Syrian regime appears to be digging its own grave." Violence has proved to be a losing strategy, as each death enrages other Syrians, sparking new demonstrations and convincing more and more fence sitters that dialogue is a fool’s errand.
Obama’s Syria policy is bound to come under the spotlight this week, given the regime’s ruthlessness in Hama and the fact that Ambassador Robert Ford is in Washington this week for a Wednesday confirmation hearing. Ford, who was sent to Damascus under a recess appointment because he could not be confirmed the first time around, will face a panel of Republican senators on the Foreign Relations Committee who are eager to criticize what they see as the administration’s timidity in Syria — and some of whom have demanded that Ford be recalled.
The White House counters that Ford’s presence in Damascus is essential, allowing him to meet with opposition figures, warn regime allies against supporting Assad, and even identify potential transitional leaders. Ford’s recent dramatic visit to besieged Hama, where he was greeted by cheering protesters bearing roses and olive branches, may have earned him some breathing space on Capitol Hill.
The ambassador’s confirmation hearing also comes just "days, not weeks" before the Treasury Department is expected to designate more Syrian officials for targeted sanctions, predicted an administration official who is not directly involved in the preparations — but probably not before he gets raked over the coals on Wednesday. In last week’s hearing with Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman let loose, demanding that Obama call for Assad’s "immediate departure."
"History will record not only how we mostly ignored the people of Syria in their hour of need, but worse, how we overlooked our own blindingly obvious national interests in the demise of the Assad regime," Ackerman said.
But few analysts think words will do much to damage the deeply entrenched Syrian regime, and some, like the Century Foundation’s Michael Hanna, worry that Assad could limp on far longer than anyone expects. Nor would multilateral sanctions, even if they do somehow pass the Security Council, have an immediate effect. "It’s unlikely that, short of massive defections within the security services at an elite level, outside pressure is going to change the calculus of the inner circle of the regime," says Hanna. Instead of being toppled, he cautions, Assad could become another international pariah, like Saddam Hussein or the Burmese junta.
Washington has made its decision, though nobody can say when Assad will go. "He’s on his way out," says the senior administration official, stressing: "This is about the Syrian people, not about us. They’re the ones that say that they want someone else, and they should be able to choose the government that they want."
And Assad? "He’s in the past."