USIP Mideast expert Steven Heydemann examines the reasons behind the regime's escalation of violence, the international community's response, and additional steps that the U.S. might take to pressure the Assad government.

August 12, 2011

USIP’s Steven Heydemann provides an update on the international diplomatic pressures to bring an end to the violent repression in Syria.

In recent weeks, the Syrian government has intensified its efforts to repress large-scale protests calling for an end to the Assad regime. What is behind the regime’s escalation of violence?

Several factors help account for the Assad regime’s recent escalation of violence. The regime acted in part to prevent the Syrian opposition from exploiting Ramadan -- a month of fasting and religious observance for Muslims -- to mobilize even larger protests than have been seen to date. Mosques are among the only places in which Syrians are legally permitted to gather and have emerged as central sites in the organization of protests. During most of the year, Muslims are expected to pray collectively only for the Friday noon prayer, and thus Fridays became days of protest in Syria. During Ramadan, Muslims attend mosques every day for collective prayer, and opportunities multiply for large numbers of people to take part in demonstrations following prayer times.  

Recent attacks targeting urban areas that have become centers of anti-regime activity reflected the Assad regime’s determination to prevent Ramadan from becoming a month of mass protests across the country.

Timing aside, the recent upsurge of regime violence underscores the failure of the Assad government to defeat the opposition after five months of protests that have seen Syria’s uprising steadily gain in size and scope. Today, protests routinely occur in more than 200 locations, despite the death of more than 2,000 protestors and some 13,000 arrests. The assaults launched by the regime since the start of Ramadan may well reflect an attempt to apply sufficient force to bring the uprising to a close once and for all. Thus far, however, there are no indications that this strategy is working.

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How has the international community responded to escalation of regime violence?

The Syrian government is paying a high diplomatic and economic cost for its recent actions. Since the beginning of August alone, both the European Union and the United States have expanded economic sanctions against Syria.  Italy withdrew its ambassador in Damascus. The president of the United Nations Security Council issued a letter condemning the regime’s use of violence and calling for those responsible to be held to account. Envoys from South Africa, Brazil and India have also visited Syria calling for an end to the bloodshed.  

Far more important than any of these developments, however, has been the explicit criticism by Arab governments and regional organizations of Syria for the first time, and the participation by Arab states in efforts to isolate Syria diplomatically, including statements critical of the Syrian government from the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League.  

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus. The Saudi announcement of its decision was unusually blunt, demanding “an end to the killing-machine and bloodshed,” and calling on the Syrian government to reform or “be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.”  

Also important was the Turkish response to the Syrian crackdown, reflecting the further erosion of Syrian-Turkish relations. On August 9, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with President Assad to convey the message that Turkey was no longer prepared to stand by while violence continued. According to reports of the meeting, he threatened direct Turkish action if the Assad regime did not change course. 

Syrian accounts of this meeting suggest no willingness on the part of the Assad government to heed Turkey’s warning, or to respond to the urging of regional and international actors. President Assad reportedly told Davutoglu that Syria would not relent in its pursuit of what he described as “armed outlaws” and violent actions targeting protestors were barely interrupted by Davutoglu’s visit.

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What additional steps might the U.S. take against the Assad government? 

The Obama administration is reviewing a number of options. The U.S. continues to work within the U.N. for a robust Security Council resolution on Syria, and seems to be gaining support for a resolution among members that have expressed reservations about such a move. It is also widely expected that President Obama will ratchet up U.S. pressure on the Syrian government with an explicit call for the resignation of President Assad. 

The administration has been inching cautiously toward such a statement for some time and it is likely that we will hear these words from President Obama in the near future even if, for all intents and purposes, U.S. policy already reflects the view that no solution to the Syrian crisis is possible as long as the Assad regime remains in power. In addition, a bill imposing energy sanctions on Syria is under development in the U.S. House of Representatives, and is likely to be followed by a similar bill in the Senate, suggesting additional Congressional action against Syria could occur following the August recess. 

Oil sales account for up to one-third of the Syrian regime’s revenues, and with U.S. sanctions in place, Syria’s ability to move its oil to market would be severely constrained. Finally, the U.S. is developing closer ties to—and extending its support for—the Syrian opposition. On August 3, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met for the first time with six members of the Syrian opposition, and expressed support for a rapid democratic transition in Syria.

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