May 18, 2011

Syria Sanctions Won't Have Much Bite

The Obama administration imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six other senior Syrian officials on Wednesday, billing the measure as the first concerted American effort to hold Syria's leader and his closest aides personally responsible for their government's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

But the sanctions -- which come amid indications that President Obama is preparing to publicly demand Assad either begin a democratic transition or step aside -- are unlikely to have much bite. Assad and his family have virtually no financial assets in American banks, and Treasury Department officials privately acknowledge it's not clear whether they will find much, if any, Syrian money to seize. By contrast, the U.S. has frozen more than $33 billion of funds tied to Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, who is engaging in a similarly violent crackdown on his own people.

Administration officials said they hoped the unilateral American sanctions would lead other institutions around the world to follow suit and take their own steps to seize Syrian money. Here, too, there may be little reason for optimism. Many European countries have deep and lucrative commercial relationships with Syria, and no Western governments have yet been willing to impose meaningful sanctions on Assad or his government.

Washington and other world powers have harshly condemned the scale and brutality of Assad’s crackdown on his own people, particularly in Homs, the country’s third-largest city and one of the centers of the pro-democracy protests that erupted two months ago. In accounts posted on Facebook and Twitter, Homs residents say Assad’s forces indiscriminately shelled the city, killing dozens of people and demolishing entire apartment buildings. Syrian human-rights activists estimate that as many as 950 demonstrators have been killed since the protests began, while more than 10,000 people have been detained.

But Western powers are doing little to bring the violence to an end. The U.S. had earlier imposed sanctions on some of Assad's relatives and aides, only to later concede the measures had little impact. The European Union spent weeks warning Assad it would soon impose sanctions, but has yet to do so. Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution formally condemning the Syrian government’s violence against the protesters. Senior U.S. officials acknowledge there's no prospect of an armed military intervention into Syria modeled on the ongoing operation inside Libya.

The Western inaction in the face of Assad’s ruthless attempt to suppress his country’s unrest comes from what U.S. and European officials describe as a blunt assessment that using force against Assad would run the risk of significant coalition casualties and a harsh Syrian counterattack against Israel and other U.S. allies in the region.

 In recent interviews, officials from the Obama administration and several key U.S. allies said their governments had been willing to intervene in Libya because operations there were seen as effectively cost-free. Qaddafi’s military is too small and poorly-equipped to threaten Western warplanes, and the Libyan strongman doesn’t have proxies in other countries willing to pick up arms in support of his regime. 

That’s not the case in Syria, which has a large and modern military with advanced Russian-made air defense systems. Syria, along with its allies in Iran, also exerts effective operational control over Hezbollah, the highly-trained Lebanese militia that fought the vaunted Israeli military to a standstill in 2006 all while pelting civilian targets in northern Israel with hundreds of rockets.

“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.