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Stiffening Challenges over Syria

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
October 5, 2011

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The announcement earlier this week of a broad-based coalition (NYT) against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called the Syrian National Council, was seen as a move to unite Syria's fractured opposition. At the same time, the continued crackdown by Assad's Alawite-dominated government and its retaking of the city of Rastan has signaled that a slide into deeper conflict remains a threat. Syrian troops have rounded up at least three thousand people for detention (TIME) in Rastan since October 1.

The escalation of violence in Syria risks pushing extremists to the forefront, justifying more brutal government repression and creating the possibility of turning "what has been a broad pro-democracy movement into a sectarian war" (WashPost). It also adds to chaos in a region already in turmoil in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring." Some are concerned that Syrian fighting could spread to neighboring Lebanon or that Iran could insert itself into the conflict on behalf of Assad. Additionally, more than ten thousand Syrians have fled to neighboring Turkey, which has become increasingly intolerant of Assad's government (CNN) and announced on October 4 that it will begin a weeklong military exercise along the two countries' shared border.

The Syrian conflict continues to be a conundrum for U.S. policymakers. While the Obama administration supports liberalizing trends in the Middle East and deplores the Assad government, its options are limited. The main channel for pressing Assad--the UN Security Council--proved a stumbling block late Tuesday when Russia and China vetoed (WashPost) a draft resolution that would have strongly condemned "grave and systemic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities." The measure, supported by European states and the United States, called for "other options" against Syria if the regime failed to cease using force against civilians and release political prisoners.

Some experts argue that Assad's exit is not in Washington's interest, despite the fact that the Obama administration has called for him to step down. "The numbers being killed now will wither in comparison with a possible future civil war, if an increasingly sectarian Syria splinters between the ruling Alawites, the elite and urban Christians, the majority Sunnis, the Kurds, Druze, and others," writes CFR's Ed Husain, who calls Assad "the least worst option." In contrast, CFR's Elliott Abrams argues that "it would be very much in the interest of the United States" for Assad's government to collapse. To that end, he urges stronger economic and financial sanctions and even further isolation.

Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. envoy to Israel and Syria, believes the Obama administration is generally handling the Arab upheavals well, and should continue to be on the side of the broader quest for individual liberties, human rights, and political participation in the Middle East. "It's just a question of time with Syria," he told CFR. "The administration's doing the right thing in working with the international community to put whatever pressure it can on the regime and to let events take their course." But expert Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution says the United States has lost sight of its strategic interests in the region and needs to refocus. The United States, writes Doran in Foreign Policy, should "dispense entirely with grand strategies that seek to foster a conciliatory image of the United States and to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, it should focus on the key challenge posed by the Arab uprisings: managing intra-Muslim conflict."

Background Materials

"Violence in Syria," CFR Media Conference Call

"Arab Rebellions, American Responses," Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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