The escalating violence and repression unleashed by Bashar al-Asad against protestors in Syria has been as horrific as it was predictable. It has posed a deep dilemma for the Obama administration, which understands both the strategic significance of upheaval in Syria and the limits of American influence over the outcome. I am outraged, if not surprised, by Asad's brutality, and I would dearly love to see democracy and human rights come to a Syria long oppressed by obsolescent Ba'athist rule. As with Libya, I want to see the international community move strongly to reinforce the norm that using force against citizens will hasten rather than prevent the fall from power of these regimes.
But I don't see a great deal of leverage which the U.S. can on its own bring to bear on the course of events in Syria. There are no magical democracy words which will tip the balance. The reality is that the U.S. has few good policy options. There are some obvious steps, of course. The administration should focus on aligning its rhetoric and actions towards Syria with its broader regional strategy, without being drawn into ill-advised escalations. It should increase the spotlight on Syrian human rights abuses, and consider carefully targeted sanctions against regime figures involved in the repression. It should not recall the U.S. Ambassador from Damascus, or consider any form of military intervention. But it should make clear to Bashar al-Asad that he is on the path of Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh. The price of his choice to abandon serious reform efforts and unleash brutal violence will be steep, and work quickly to formulate a coherent regional response which can help broker a serious political transition in Damascus.
The key next step is to build a strong regional consensus among Syria's neighbors on a Yemen-style plan for a meaningful political transition. This can not be a unilateral American initiative. It could only work with the active support of a diverse group of states who do not always work well together, including most crucially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the rest of the GCC, and Turkey, which has gone from a painful silence to recently hosting a conference of Syrian opposition figures. (Ideally Iraq would be a part of this, though its current political tensions and Bahrain-fueled spats with the GCC make this unlikely.) There would have to be significant carrots offered in order to entice key Syrian actors to accept the offer, and fierce Iranian resistance would need to be overcome. The risks of such a regional initiative are high, and the continuing uncertainties about the Yemen deal certainly show that it won't be easy. But the potential payoffs are enormous, and there are few more attractive alternatives on offer. It done successfully, such a gambit could rescue the Arab spring from the violent, bloody cul de sac into which desperate dictators have driven it, and hold out the prospect of fundamental positive transformations of the region.
The core of the problem is that on its own, the U.S. has very limited leverage over Damascus or events on the ground in Syria. The administration has already done most of the few concrete things which have been suggested by its critics, including sharpened rhetoric, convening an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council, and preparing targeted sanctions. But since Syria has long been an American adversary in the region, such efforts have limited impact. Rhetoric demanding political change in Damascus will largely fall on deaf ears since most people in the region already assume that the U.S. supports regime change in Syria, and wouldn't have the impact of similar statements about Mubarak, Qaddafi, or Saleh. The U.S. already has a daunting array of sanctions in place against Damascus, leaving it little room for tightening. In short, even the strongest concrete policy proposals on offer are not likely to have much effect on Syria's course.
One common demand which the administration should reject is that it withdraw Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus. That demand has been most forcefully made by the same people who fought tooth and nail to prevent an Ambassador from going to Syria in the first place. Doing so would be a symbolic gesture with real costs. The U.S. has few points of contact into Syrian civil society, partly due to the reality of crushing Syrian authoritarian rule and partly due to the long years during which the U.S. Embassy stood empty. We would be far better off right now if Ambassador Ford had been able to establish his presence in Damascus much earlier, instead of being held up by hawkish Congressional skeptics of engagement. There has never been a more crucial time to have high quality representation in Damascus, somebody who is able to communicate both with the Asad regime and with as many parts of Syrian society as possible. Withdrawing him now would be a self-defeating, pointless gesture which would actively undermine America's ability to respond effectively to a fast-changing situation.
On the other hand, the administration should toughen its rhetoric against the Asad regime. This should be consistently framed within the broader administration arguments in favor of non-violence, universal rights, and the urgent need for meaningful reform. The time has passed for modulating America's response in order to give Asad the space to offer real reforms, since he's made clear that he has no interest in doing so. His regime's widespread use of violence forces the administration's hand. The Libya intervention, while directly triggered by the need to prevent an impending massacre, also sought to put teeth behind the administration's efforts from Tunisia onward to establish a norm against the use of violence against protestors to stay in power. Obama should say something like "The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators. This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now." (Oh, he already did? My bad. You wouldn't know it from the punditry.)
There are no grounds for a Libya-style military intervention in Syria. It is difficult to imagine any scenario which would make U.S.-led military action appropriate. But there are some political tools which could help push in this direction. The increased focus on Syria's human rights violations, including the referral to an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council which has now been scheduled for Friday, is a good start which continues the multilateral, institutional approach to the regional upheaval. Targeted sanctions against regime officials responsible for the repression would also follow the same logic.
The regional and international environment also makes it difficult to do a great deal more in Syria. The U.S. did very well to overcome internal opposition at the United Nations to get an emergency session of the Human Rights Council scheduled for Friday. A Security Council Resolution comparable to the one authorizing the Libya intervention seems highly unlikely, however. The Arab media, including al-Jazeera, is increasingly focused on the horrific news out of Syria, but there have been none of the Arab demands for Western intervention which characterized the Libya debate in the weeks leading up to that intervention. The muted response from governments across the region, from Israel and Turkey to the Gulf, reflects their very real concerns about the risk of insecurity in Syria, which in turn points to the difficulty of building any regional consensus for escalation.
But there could be a regional consensus for a guided political transition. And that is where American efforts should now be directed. Regional leaders have slowly begun to accept the magnitude of the challenge to the Asad regime, and fear the chaos which might follow a full-scale civil war. If a plan for change in Syria were tied to a clear overarching U.S. strategy for the region, there is a chance that they could be enlisted in support of something which would align them and the U.S. with the aspirations of Arab public opinion while advancing their strategic interests. It won't be easy, but the potential benefit might just make it worth the risks.