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USIP’s Steven Heydemann discusses the recent violence in Syria. For how this impacts Lebanon, read USIP’s Mona Yacoubian’s analysis.

May 9, 2011

USIP’s Steven Heydemann discusses the recent violence in Syria. For how this impacts Lebanon, read USIP’s Mona Yacoubian’s analysis.

Syria's uprising has taken an increasingly violent turn. Can the opposition survive the government's repression?

The violence directed by Syrian security forces against protestors has reached levels second only to those seen in Libya. Several Syrian cities, including Dera'a and surrounding regions, Banyas, and Homs, are under military occupation. Protests are routinely met with force, including live fire directed at unarmed citizens. Hundreds of people have been killed, thousands injured, and thousands more detained in a nation-wide campaign of arrests aimed at breaking the momentum of Syria's popular uprising.

Repression has not yet succeeded in bringing Syria's uprising to an end. Syrian citizens have demonstrated significant courage in continuing to protest despite the dangers they confront in doing so. There are indicators that regime violence is having a galvanizing effect, reinforcing the determination of the opposition. Nonetheless, there are also signs that repression is taking a toll. It has forced many local activists underground—those who have thus far escaped arrest. It has succeeded in reducing the size and scale of protests. It has sharply increased the difficulties of coordination among an opposition that has, from the beginning, lacked the national coherence of its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. Repression is also having a deterrent effect on Syrians who may well be critical of the regime, but have thus far remained on the sidelines. There seems little question that the regime's violence is affecting the calculus of at least some Syrians about whether to join the opposition or not.

As a result, the Syrian uprising, which has always faced difficult odds, now confronts even more daunting conditions. The opposition has argued that its mere survival in the face of regime violence is an indicator of success. Whether the opposition will be able to sustain itself against the coercive power of the regime, however, much less achieve its aim of a democratic transition for Syria, seems increasingly uncertain.

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Syria's government has been widely condemned for its widespread use of force. Has its legitimacy been so deeply compromised that it will be unable to recover? What price will the regime pay for its actions?

The Syrian government is paying a significant price for its use of violence. The U.S. and EU have imposed new targeted sanctions on key Syrian officials and firms. The United Nations Human Rights Council has announced that it intends to investigate the government's behavior. Should Syria fail to cooperate, more serious international legal proceedings could follow. Within Syria there has been noticeable shock and even revulsion among segments of Syrian society at the images of protesters killed and wounded by security forces. Yet pragmatism is a powerful force, and history suggests that whether the Syrian regime recovers some measure of legitimacy depends more on how this uprising ends than on the means used to end it. There are dozens of cases in which governments that have killed their own citizens not only remain in power, but are barely held to account for their deeds. It was only two decades after Tienanmen that China hosted the Olympics.

Will the Syrian government get off quite so easily? Probably not, if indeed it survives the current uprising. It may well find itself forced to deliver on promised reforms. It may find itself the target of an ongoing, low-level campaign of retribution. It will almost certainly be compelled to sustain a heightened level of coercion for an extended period, exacerbating the social and economic damage of the recent turmoil. In addition, governments around the world have condemned Syria's actions and are gradually escalating their pressure on the regime, and it may take real evidence of changed regime behavior before such measures are reversed. Nonetheless, Western governments have been reluctant to shut the door entirely on the idea that the Syrian government will change course. Instead, they are hedging, preserving incentives to induce such a change, and resisting, for now, calls for President Assad to leave office. All of this suggests that the international community is preparing for the possibility that at some point in the future, and however reluctantly, it will need to reengage with the Assad regime.

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Is there more the West can do to pressure the Syrian government? Why have recent sanctions seemed to have so little effect?

There is more the West can do, in particular by directing diplomatic pressure at President Assad himself, continuing to expand the scope and reach of sanctions, and making clear the consequences for Syria's relations with Western states of continuing its repression of protests. In a statement on May 6, the White House indicated that “The United States and the international community will adjust their relations with Syria according to the concrete actions undertaken by the Syrian government.” This marked a further increase in U.S. efforts to put pressure on Syria.

Yet it is important to be realistic about the limits of U.S. influence over Syria, and the challenges are not simply the result of a long history of U.S.-Syrian antagonism. The Syrian government has spent much of the past decade taking steps to insulate itself from the effects of Western diplomacy. It has diversified its diplomatic ties away from the West, tightening connections with leading authoritarian regimes and rising regional powers such as China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Brazil. These Syrian allies have resisted U.S. and Western efforts to take harsher action against Syria in the U.N. Security Council. The Assad government has also shifted its economic ties toward governments that operate with a very strong notion of state sovereignty, and are not inclined to adjust their relationships with Syria depending on how its government behaves. As a result, Syria is simply far less vulnerable to Western sanctions than it was in the past. Intense efforts to isolate and penalize Syria during the period from 2003-2007 were almost entirely ineffective. There is little reason to think that similar instruments of diplomacy will be more effective in the current context. This is not a reason to hold back in taking vigorous steps to express Western concerns about the behavior of the Syrian government. It is, however, an important caution about their likely impact.

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