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Syria's Challenge to U.S. and EU

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
June 27, 2011

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More than 150 Syrian intellectuals and activists (NYT), including some of the country's most prominent opposition figures, met today in Damascus to discuss how to end the violence and begin a peaceful transition to democratic rule. Their debate is being watched in the region and beyond; a number of analysts say Syria's unrest threatens to destabilize an already unsettled neighborhood and challenges Western governments that have chose to intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds but have resisted doing so in Syria.

While the government allowed the Damascus meeting to take place, Syrian security forces continued their crackdown on protesters over the weekend, with another four civilians killed. A protest group called for demonstrators to expect "a volcano" (AFP) later this week in the city of Aleppo. The violence is also affecting neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. More than twelve thousand refugees have crossed into Turkey (National), where the Red Crescent, a local version of the Red Cross, said that seventeen thousand more were waiting to cross the border. Ankara has sharpened its rhetoric (Reuters) against Damascus--publicly nudging President Bashar al-Assad to pass reforms and calling his crackdown "savagery." Hundreds of Syrians have also reportedly crossed into Lebanon (Ennahar).

The implications for the region have grown. There are fears that Syria could descend into a sectarian conflict that would draw in neighboring countries, and that the stakes could be higher than anywhere else in the Arab world. Syria borders five other nations and has close ties to Iran and militant groups including Hezbollah and Hamas. "People are afraid of what could happen if Assad falls from power," said Elias Muhanna (AP), a political analyst at Harvard University. At worst, it could become what he calls "an Iraq scenario," with armed militias carving out ethnic fiefdoms.

The United States and other Western governments have been unwilling to intervene militarily as they have in Libya, though some commentators say the humanitarian concerns undergirding NATO's actions in Libya are true for Syria as well. Syrian dissident Ausama Monajed writes in the Washington Post that international governments can still work "to stoke defections among Assad's ranks" rather than waiting for Assad to implement reforms.

The Obama administration is reportedly gathering information on alleged human rights abuses (WSJ) by Assad's security forces for possible referral to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, perhaps in hopes that the court will follow up its recent arrest warrants for Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi (LAT) with ones for Assad.

The United States and the European Union in recent weeks have placed sanctions on Assad and his family and aides. Some believe that sanctions will heighten strains on an economy that is already deteriorating (al-Arabiya) and add to pressure on the Assad regime. But the United States and EU have been unable to persuade Russia and China to abandon opposition to a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria's actions, though UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has spoken out sharply (NPR) against Assad's government.

Selected Analysis

Undecided Syrians in the middle ground are being wooed both by protesters who want to bring Assad down and by purported reformers in the regime who want to prop him up, says the Economist.

Large numbers of internally displaced persons and refugees from Libya and Syria could create a dire situation for refugees, as many of the countries to which the people are fleeing allow them few, if any, rights, says ForeignPolicy.com.

It is stunning that the United States appears unable to call for Assad's departure--despite what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "horrific, revolting attacks" on the people of Syria, writes CFR's Elliott Abrams.

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