BEIRUT (Reuters) - Seven weeks of protests in Syria. Seven weeks of bloody repression.
International criticism has mounted. The United States has tightened sanctions. The European Union may impose its own.
But President Bashar al-Assad is battling to maintain his family’s four-decade-old grip on power and will not let outside pressures deflect him from crushing Syrian demonstrators demanding freedom, like so many others across the Arab world.
“U.S. and EU sanctions have more a psychological effect than a tangible one,” said Murhaf Jouejati, Professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University.
Senior Syrian officials whose assets have been frozen under new U.S. sanctions have none in the United States, and the EU, considering an arms embargo, does not sell weapons to Syria, he said, adding that travel bans have a bit more of a bite.
“Sanctions alone will not deter Syrian leaders from using deadly force against protesters as they feel the survival of the regime is at stake. The U.S. and the EU will have to do better if they want to rein in the Assad regime,” Jouejati said.
Failing U.N. action, he suggested extra measures such as a total freeze on the assets of Assad and his allies, a travel ban on senior Syrian officials, the withdrawal of ambassadors and reduced diplomatic relations. Syria should also be barred from seeking a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
At least 560 civilians have been killed in the protests that began on March 18, rights groups say. Syrian authorities put the death toll at 148, including 78 members of the security forces.
Assad, condemned by Western leaders for his handling of the unrest, has also received scoldings from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who had forged strong trade and political ties with its neighbor.
The Turkish leader has urged Assad to reform before it is too late and warned him against “another Hama” — referring to the Syrian city where Assad’s father crushed an armed Islamist revolt in 1982, killing many thousands of civilians.
“Syria will pay lip service to the Turks, but Assad cannot usher in the sort of reforms that Erdoghan has brought to Turkey without ending his regime,” said Joshua Landis, associate professor of Middle East studies at Oklahoma University.
Although Assad has sent tanks into the city of Deraa and other protest flashpoints, he has found Russia, China and Lebanon still willing shield Syria from verbal rebuke by the United Nations Security Council, let alone sanctions.
“It will be interesting to see if resistance from Russia, China and Lebanon melts away in the face of increased death tolls,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Other measures could include bringing the Assads to the International Criminal Court.”
Mindful of the pain inflicted on Iraqis by a 12-year U.N. embargo that failed to alter the behavior of then President Saddam Hussein, few world leaders are pushing for broad trade sanctions on Syria, another Baathist-ruled Arab country.
Two influential U.S. lawmakers urged the United States on Thursday to intensify unilateral sanctions on Syria, initiated in 2004 for various alleged offences, such as Syrian support for the Palestinian Hamas group and Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas.
But new measures seem unlikely to influence Assad and his inner circle, particularly during the immediate crisis.
“The pressure placed upon the Syrian government following the Hariri assassination was, in many ways, far more severe than the current package, and Assad managed to withstand it quite handily,” said Elias Muhanna, a Middle East scholar at Harvard.
Washington, Paris and Riyadh led an outcry over the 2005 killing of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri, in which Damascus denied any hand. Under pressure, Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in line with a Security Council resolution, but it has since worked assiduously to regain influence in its neighbor.
Lebanon, occupying the Arab seat on the Security Council, is ill-placed to criticize Syria, even if the Arab League had any appetite for penalizing repressive Syrian measures akin to those many of its members are pursuing against their own dissenters.
The League has acted only against Libya, suspending its membership over Muammar Gaddafi’s handling of protests.
“The Arab League failed to criticize Syria because most of its component units are themselves authoritarian regimes,” said Jouejati.
Arab leaders treated Libya differently because most had no respect for Gaddafi or interests in his country.
Libya is also on the Arab world’s periphery, not right at its center like Syria, which sits on many of the Middle East’s conflict faultlines. Instability or the collapse of 48 years of Baathist rule in Damascus could reverberate far and wide.
“The Arab League worries that a power vacuum in Syria could be deeply destabilizing for the whole region,” Muhanna said.
“They fear that ethnic and sectarian conflicts, should they emerge in Syria, would metastasize over its borders into Lebanon, Iraq, and perhaps even Turkey. For this reason, they are treating the Syrian case with kid gloves.”
Landis, describing Syria as “too big to fail,” said: “If the revolution succeeds, Syria’s state institutions may well collapse as did both Lebanon’s and Iraq’s.”
A breakdown of order could trigger a surge of refugees, many of whom would head for Europe via Turkey, which has an 800 km (500 mile) border with Syria and no visa requirements.
“No one wants this. Europe is already choking on its Muslims. Syria’s neighbors fear a flood of refugees and chaos.”