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US and Europe prepare to back condemnation of Syria with deeds

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s resolve to brutally crush mass protests demanding an end to his authoritarian regime is forcing the United States and Europe to back verbal condemnations with deeds. The Western powers have reacted sharply to Mr. Assad’s decision to seal Syria’s borders with neighboring Jordan, and to order his security forces to fire on civilians in Deraa. At least 26 residents were reported killed. Some rights groups suggest that dozens more may have been killed.

The Obama administration, in an initial response to the escalating violence in Syria, is drafting an executive order to freeze the assets of senior Syrian officials and bar them from engaging in business dealings with the United States. If adopted, the European Union will likely apply similar sanctions that would hit home harder because Syria has closer economic ties to Europe than to the United States.

The sanctions, designed to cripple the Syrian economy, also constitute a bid by Washington and Brussels to avert being drawn into a second military confrontation in the Middle East and North Africa in support of anti-government protesters. Allied forces last month imposed a United Nations Security Council-back no-fly zone in Libya and on Monday attacked Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Imposition of the sanctions is likely to buy the United States and Europe some time. The reports of the planned sanctions came a day after Human Rights Watch called for punitive measures against Syrian officials responsible “for the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and the arbitrary detention and torture of hundreds of protesters, as well as …an urgent briefing of the UN Security Council on the spiraling situation in the country,” including last weekend’s deaths.

“It is no longer enough to condemn the violence,” a Human Rights Watch spokesman said.

The mounting death toll and Syria’s employment of its military makes it, however, a matter of time before the question arises whether Syrian civilians are not entitled to the same protection extended to Libyans by the Security Council. Government forces killed some 120 protesters last weekend.

Syrian military troops backed by tanks and civilian-clad security forces attacked on Monday the Syrian town of Deraa, where the protests first erupted five weeks ago, as well as the Douma district of the capital Damascus. Syria denied reports from Jordan as well as Syrian activists that it had closed its border with Jordan because of the operation in Deraa, located five kilometers from the frontier. Activists and residents of Deraa say some 26 people were killed in the assault as snipers shot randomly at homes.

The attack raises the specter of a repeat of the assault in 1982 ordered by Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, on the city of Hama that crushed the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Some 20,000 people reportedly died in that assault.

The attacks represent a significant escalation of the Syrian crisis with the deployment of the regular armed forces alongside the security services for the first time since the protests erupted. This is a risky strategy for Mr. Assad. The possibility of elements of the military turning against the president is greater as the violence against unarmed civilians escalates than from within the security forces whose future is far more dependent on the survival of his regime.

Mr. Assad has already seen cracks emerge in the country’s political and religious leadership with the resignations of two Syrian politicians and a state-appointed Muslim in protest against this weekend’s killings.

Quelling the popular revolt against his regime may prove to be more difficult for Mr. Assad than his father’s 1982 defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast to his father, Mr. Assad faces a popular revolt that has engulfed the whole country and cuts across ethnic and religious lines rather than one that is restricted to only one city and one group. While the media have been barred from access to areas under assault by the Syrian military, news of the attacks are reaching, unlike in the case of Hama, the outside world in a stream of amateur videos on the Internet.

The pictures are fuelling international condemnation as well as the calls for a US and European sanctions. They are likely to prompt calls for stronger actions as it becomes clears that sanctions are insufficient to convince Mr. Assad to halt the brutal crackdown any time soon.

The significance of Mr. Assad’s selection of Deraa, a socially and religiously conservative town, goes beyond the fact that it stands at the cradle of the most serious challenge to date to the president’s grip on power. It lends credence to the assertion of Mr. Assad’s regime that the protests constitute a foreign conspiracy involving armed Salafists, a puritanical Muslim group that wants to emulate Muslim practice as it was at the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

In doing so, Mr. Assad hopes to strengthen fears that his downfall would pave the way for an Islamist regime that would ignite ethnic and religious tensions in a country populated by mosaic of minorities. It is a strategy aimed not only at undermining domestic support for the protests but also at persuading the United States and Europe to think twice about increasing the pressure on Mr. Assad’s regime.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])