Analysis Brief

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Countering Syria's Ramadan Offensive

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
August 4, 2011


Syria's renewed crackdown on protesters in Hama (Reuters) and elsewhere has prompted wide global outrage. More than 170 people are estimated dead in the government violence that began July 31, the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Internet and other services have been cut off in Hama (LAT), with tanks occupying the city's center, and food deliveries into the city are blocked. The latest moves stirred UN Security Council condemnation on August 3, months after the government began its brutal campaign against pro-reform demonstrators. The Council issued a presidential statement urging all sides to end the violence and resist reprisals, including "attacks against state institutions," and called for Syrian government cooperation with UN human rights investigators.

Beyond the UN process,  though, policy experts and commentators have raised questions about the difficulty in stopping a regime that, like its ally Iran, finds it effective to counter democratic protest with brutal force. At the heart of the issue is whether "the lesson of the Arab Spring is that dictators are doomed or that dictators willing to shoot peaceful protesters can win," writes CFR's Elliott Abrams. Or, as Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times, whether rule by fear trumps the "we are not afraid of you" defiance that led to the Arab Spring upheavals, with lessons for other repressive governments in the Middle East.

There is also concern that Syria could devolve into sectarian war, with unsettling ramifications for the region. Such concerns are one reason Arab leaders, who were willing to speak out against Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi and support NATO intervention, are reluctant to do the same (CSMonitor) against Assad. And while Arab leaders are frustrated by Syria's deepening relationship with Iran, they are more worried about "the succession of regime-changing rebellions that has rippled through the Arab world since January," writes Nicholas Blanford in the Christian Science Monitor.

The Obama administration is said to be preparing additional sanctions against Syria. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says it's time to "start thinking about the day after Assad (Haaretz)"; and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D–NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) prepared a bill that would block Syrian access to the U.S. financial system and markets and also block federal contracts for companies that invest in Syria's energy sector.

Elsewhere, the European Union has extended its sanctions on Syria (Xinhua), imposing asset freezes and travel bans on five more Syrian officials, including Assad, bringing the number under sanctions to thirty-five. Italy has recalled its Syrian ambassador, and Turkish President Abdullah Gul (Today'sZaman) said Turkey, which borders Syria and is now hosting thousands of Syrian refugees, "could not remain silent" in the face of violence during Ramadan.

Experts like CFR's Abrams believe Assad's regime is vulnerable if a wedge can be established between Assad and the country's minority Alawite community that has long supported him. "It is the Alawite population as a whole, not the army, that holds the key to change," writes Bassma Kodmani of the Arab Reform Initiative in the New York Times. "But the Alawites will need assurances from the opposition before they abandon Mr. Assad." CFR's Robert Danin adds U.S. officials should also find ways of encouraging "the Sunni merchant classes in Damascus in Aleppo, places that have remained quiet so far, to break from the regime." This may be starting to happen. Blake Hounshell and Josh Rogin write in Foreign Policy that a number of Assad's supporters in those places, "including Christians, some Alawites, and a few big Sunni businessmen, are starting to distance themselves from the regime because they are starting to assess the president as a liability--a view the U.S. Embassy in Damascus is assiduously trying to cultivate."

 Selected Analysis

By targeting Syria's energy sector, the United States can hit Assad where it really hurts--his pocketbook, writes Andrew Tabler in Foreign Policy.

Five Syria experts discuss the prospects for change in Syria and implications for the region on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's website.

The Hama massacre "highlights the most salient feature of Syrian political life: the mailed fist of the state," write Brookings experts Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh in the American Interest.