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Responding to Syria's Aggression

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
June 13, 2011

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Heavy shelling and gunfire (BBC) over the weekend in the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shoughour, and the flight of thousands of refugees into Turkey, has increased international and regional criticism of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. But serious questions loom about what effective options are available to counter Syria's intensified military response to the protests that have spread through the country since March. The United States and its Western allies are reluctant to intervene militarily as they have in Libya, the UN Security Council is divided, and Syria's neighbors, particularly Turkey, are increasingly concerned but also cautious.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague both denounced Assad's escalation of hostilities but ruled out a military response. Clinton said Washington would follow the lead of the region (VOA), which "is trying to, behind the scenes, get the government to stop. And they believe that at the time this is the best way to go forward. So we listen very closely to what people in the neighborhood, in the region, say."

Some critics challenge this approach. "It is quite stunning that the United States appears unable to call for Assad's departure," writes CFR's Elliott Abrams. On Face the Nation, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) yesterday said "now is the time to let Assad know that all options are the table"--including the possible use of military force. And commenting last week on efforts by a U.S.-backed, European-led effort to get the UN Security Council (ForeignPolicy) to adopt a resolution condemning Syria--which Russia and China have said they would not back--Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "Responsible nations must develop, implement, and enforce stronger sanctions, in the Security Council and beyond, in order to meet this goal."

Even Turkey, which has enjoyed improved relations and trade with Syria in recent years, has spoken out against the Assad regime while accommodating the Syrians fleeing the country along its border with Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was re-elected this weekend, says Turkey will not support Syria (Today'sZaman) at the United Nations.

The stakes in Syria are considerable. As Bruce Riedel points out on the Daily Beast, much depends on the "cohesion of the military." If Syria's army splinters along sectarian lines and Assad falls, "Iran loses its key ally in the Arab world, and Israel will face a much less predictable neighbor to its north." Still, given that NATO is already committed in Libya and an economically strapped United States is eager to wind down its commitments abroad, there seem to be limits, so far, on what the international community is prepared to do. "The world's response to the bloodshed in Syria, or rather, the lack of a coherent response so far, is a somber reminder of the limits of American and Western power, and the tenuous nature of international political consensus," Daniel Larison points out in The Week.

Selected Analysis

On Foreign Affairs, Michael BrŲning, Tony Badran, Mara E. Karlin, and Andrew J. Tabler discuss the increasingly brutal crackdown in Syria, the durability of the Assad regime, and what, if anything, the United States can do to bring the crisis to a peaceful end.

Even as Washington struggles to come to terms with the "Arab Spring," the Middle East is imperceptibly moving to a post-American era. Both allies and adversaries in the region are growing largely indifferent to America's prohibitions, writes CFR's Ray Takeyh in the International Herald Tribune.

In a recent essay for the London Review of Books, CFR's Mohamad Bazzi analyzes the Syrian Ba'athist regime's strategy for maintaining power.

Although the United States and other countries will ratchet up sanctions, it's likely Assad's regime will stay in power, though at "a tremendous cost in terms of Syria's growing isolation from the West and perhaps even more broadly," says Syria expert Mona Yacoubian.

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