“It’s appalling to look at what’s happening in Syria, and it’s even worse to know that we really can’t do much to stop it,” said a senior U.S. official with extensive experience in the region. “The Syrian government knows it can act with a certain amount of impunity because we have no real leverage over them. There’s no talk whatsoever about using force against Syria, because the costs would just be so high.”
The passivity toward Assad stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Libya, where U.S. drones and NATO warplanes helped rebels push Qaddafi’s forces out of the battlefield city of Misurata earlier this month. Qaddafi has held onto power far longer than many Western officials had anticipated when they launched the campaign in late March, but the country’s rebels are making steady, if uncertain, battlefield gains.
Dave Barno, a retired three-star Army general, said the situation inside Syria has disturbing parallels to a similar crackdown inside Iran in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election there in 2009. Tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets at the time, and the theocratic regime in Tehran initially appeared unsure how to respond. Ultimately, it decided to use force, rightly wagering that Western powers -- despite their rhetoric -- wouldn’t use force to try to stop the crackdown. Syria, Barno said, appears to have made the same calculation.
“Assad is crystal clear that the U.S. is not coming to Damascus to prevent him from crushing the rebellion, and he’s 100 percent right about that,” said Barno, who now works as a senior adviser with the Center for a New American Security. “In a sense, we intervened in Libya because we could. But Syria is a lot more like Iran than it is like Libya. It’s a police state which is willing to do virtually anything to hold onto power. And that means Assad is probably going to weather this.”
Whether or not Assad ultimately manages to retain power, the strongman’s continued willingness to fight -- and the West’s refusal to try to stop it -- portends dark days ahead for the battered country. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Rami Makhlouf, an Assad relative who is also the country’s leading businessman, warned the protesters that the regime wouldn’t give up its power peacefully.
“We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end,” Makhlouf told the newspaper. “'They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”
The administration is hoping sanctions will begin to change the minds of men like Makhlouf and Assad. But the relative weakness of the measures may instead leave them even more set in their ways.
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