Analysis / James M. Dorsey: What can Obama do about the brutal Syrian crackdown on protesters? Anything? Nothing?
If Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is testing US President Barack Obama’s resolve, so is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Both Middle Eastern leaders for reasons of their own want to know—barely 48 hours after Mr. Obama delivered a broad-ranging speech setting out US policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of anti-government protests sweeping the region—how far the president is willing and able to go.
How Mr. Obama responds to the challenges will determine his credibility as well as perceptions of the ability of the United States to influence, if not shape, developments in a key part of the world.
So far, Mr. Obama has stood his ground in insisting despite Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal that Israeli-Palestinian peace has to lead to an independent Palestinian state whose boundaries are based on Israel’s borders prior to its conquest of the West Bank in 1967. Mr. Obama became the first American president to set the pre-1967 border as a baseline for advancing negotiations when he highlighted that point in his address last Thursday.
Mr. Assad’s continued brutal crackdown on demonstrators and the protesters’ stunning resilience in the face of the killing of hundreds and detentions of thousands by Syrian security forces defies Mr. Obama’s warning that the Syrian leader must embrace demands for political and economic reform or relinquish power.
It also challenges the president’s assertion that the violence against protesters in various Arab countries has to stop and that authoritarian leaders should engage in a transition toward power sharing in their countries. This could embarrassingly demonstrate the limits of Mr. Obama’s power.
In an indication that Mr. Assad was not swayed by Mr. Obama’s assertions, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) accused the US president of “inciting violence” with his criticism of the Syrian leader, support for the protesters, and call for an end to government brutality.
Activists said security forces killed at least 50 people and wounded hundreds in the last 24 hours as thousands took to the streets on Friday and Saturday in towns and cities across Syria, including the capital Damascus. At least five persons were killed and dozens injured on Saturday when security forces in Homs attacked mourners of Friday’s casualties with brute force, activists say.
The choice presented by Mr. Obama to Mr. Assad was the clearest articulation to date that there are limits to the US and European reluctance to call for the Syrian leader’s resignation because of the uncertainty of who might succeed him. The question is what those limits are and at what point Mr. Assad’s brutality tips the balance in the United States as well as in Russia and Turkey in favor of regime change, a conclusion leaders in Saudi Arabia have already drawn.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned this week that his country would not support a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions against Syria. Mr. Medvedev said Mr. Assad should have the chance to make good on his promise to implement political change.
Similarly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told US ambassador to Turkey Francis Riccardione on Friday that Mr. Assad should retain power and immediately enact democratic reforms.
Vain hope that Mr. Assad will correct his errant ways however risks the crisis in Syria—an ethnic and religious mosaic of Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Christians and various heterodox Muslim sects—being complicated by mounting sectarian tension that could spill over into neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
Various centers of the anti-Assad protests, including Homs, Baniyas and Latakia, straddle the fault line between the majority Sunni population and the ruling Alawite minority, to which Mr. Assad belongs. Unconfirmed reports say violence along that fault line already has sectarian connotations.
The resilience of the protesters and the intransigence of Mr. Assad appear to have stalemated the situation in Syria. Mr. Obama’s speech may have strengthened both parties’ resolve with protesters more determined to stand their ground and the Syrian president more tenacious in his efforts to crush the protests.
The protesters’ resilience makes ineffective Western sanctions and Mr. Obama’s speech seems like a meek and timid response to the Assad regime’s brutality. Mr. Assad’s rejection of calls to end the brutal crackdown makes Mr. Obama appear impotent. As a result, Mr. Obama needs to be seen to be trying to force an end to the violence in Syria more forcefully than just with statements and ineffective sanctions.
The use of military force is not an option. The imposition three months ago of a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone on Libya illustrates the limitations of military intervention that has no guarantee of success and, if anything, could aggravate rather than resolve the situation.
For now, Mr. Obama has little choice but to resort to diplomacy in an effort to achieve some sort of international consensus. That has become more difficult as Saudi Arabia, perhaps the United States’ most important ally in the Arab World, increasingly charts its own course.
However, as Mr. Obama increasingly loses hope that Mr. Assad will implement reforms and gravitates toward regime change, US and Saudi attitudes toward Syria will coincide. That would strengthen US efforts to achieve an international consensus but leaves the question open to what Mr. Obama and the international community can do in real terms to force a halt to the brutal violence employed by the Assad regime. The answer may well be: Nothing.
(James M. Dorsey 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])