WASHINGTON — Despite a ruthless Syrian government crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators, there is no international appetite for a warlike approach to Syria, a crucial Middle Eastern playmaker with ties to Iran and a say in any eventual Arab peace with Israel.
In contrast with the quick international decision to launch an air campaign in the fellow Arab nation Libya, the United States is responding cautiously to mounting civilian deaths in Syria, preparing to slap new travel limits and financial penalties on Syrian leaders.
As violence escalated anew on Monday, the White House stepped up its condemnation of President Bashar Assad’s regime, but stopped well short of demanding the ouster of a leader some U.S. Democrats had considered a potential reformer and peace broker.
U.S. officials said Washington has begun drawing up targeted sanctions against Assad and his family and inner circle. Meanwhile, the United States also was conferring with European countries and with the United Nations about options for Syria, where more than 350 people have been killed in weeks of protests and government attempts to quell them.
Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks poured Monday into the city where the five-week-old uprising began, opening fire indiscriminately on civilians before dawn and killing at least 11 people, witnesses said. Bodies were scattered in the streets. Widespread arrests — often of men along with their families — appear to have been an attempt to intimidate protesters and set an example for the rest of the country.
The offensive was planned in detail with electricity, water and mobile phone services cut off and knife-wielding security agents conducted house-to-house sweeps.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney deplored the latest developments and said that sanctions against the Assad regime were a possible response “to make clear to the Syrian government that we believe it needs to cease and desist from the violence it’s been perpetrating against its own citizens.”
He would not say whether Assad had lost the support of his people, saying, “It is up to the people of Syria to decide who its leader should be. That’s what we believe.”
Assad appears dug in and prepared to risk international condemnation in order to squash dissent. He faces little danger of invasion or attack from outside his borders, largely because Syria’s neighbours and Western powers fear the consequences of war or the fall of the Assads after four decades of iron rule. And unlike in Libya, there is little evidence of an organized rebel military faction that could take on Assad’s forces with help from outsiders.
Also unlike in Libya, and even in Egypt, where a longtime ruler fell earlier this year, what happens in Syria is likely to have a direct effect on Israel, the main U.S. ally in the Middle East. The crackdown in Syria has ignited debate over whether Israel’s interests would be better served by survival of the Syrian leader or the end of one of the most despotic regimes in the Middle East.
The deadly bloodshed in Syria is increasingly unnerving Israeli leaders, who are suddenly confronting the possibility of regime change in the neighbouring country after years of relative stability.
Israel and its U.S. backers do not want to be seen as opposing the forces of reform sweeping the region, which have toppled autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and weakened those in Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Bahrain — particularly if they deliver a blow to Israel’s archenemy, Iran.
But although Syria is despised in Israel for its close alliance with Iran and support for the Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, the Syrian leaders have enforced quiet meticulously along the countries’ shared border and have expressed willingness in the past to talk peace with Israel. There is widespread worry in Israel and Washington that if Assad does not survive, any successor could be far more extreme, Islamist and belligerent.
Syria has multiple sectarian divisions, largely kept in check under Assad’s heavy hand and his regime’s secular ideology. Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim.
The Syrian uprising began in mid-March, touched off by the arrest of teenagers in Daraa who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall. But the relentless crackdowns have only emboldened protesters, who started with calls for modest reforms but are now increasingly demanding Assad’s downfall.
New U.S. penalties probably would involve asset freezes and travel bans on Assad, members of his family and senior regime officials. Syria already is subject to numerous penalties as it is deemed a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the State Department. The new sanctions being considered would target specific individuals accused of ordering or committing human rights abuses, a U.S. official said.
Similar sanctions were crafted for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, his family and top aides. But a closer model for the probable Syria sanctions would be the penalties the administration put in place against senior Iranian officials for human rights abuses in the aftermath of disputed elections in 2009, the official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.
The official said that sanctions are expected to be announced sometime soon, once Obama has signed an executive order authorizing them. The official was not specific about the timing but acknowledged an urgency to act and noted that calls for sanctions to be imposed quickly have been growing as Assad’s crackdown on protesters has intensified.
President Barack Obama’s national security team discussed possible sanctions Friday during a meeting of the No. 2 officials at the Departments of state, defence, the National Security Council and intelligence agencies.
Also under consideration is a televised statement by Obama condemning the violence, the official said. The White House on Friday released a written statement in Obama’s name demanding that “this outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.” But Obama’s top aides believe an on-camera reaction from the president might carry more weight.
“The Syrian people should certainly be respected, their rights should be respected, they should not be attacked, they should not be killed … we call for processes of reform,” Press Secretary Carney said. He argued that there were numerous differences between the situation in Syria and the one in Libya, where the U.S. called for Gadhafi’s exit and, with United Nations backing, launched airstrikes and sorties aimed at protecting civilians and enforcing a no-fly zone.
The administration’s move toward targeted sanctions suggests Obama has all but abandoned efforts to engage the Syrian leaders and gently encourage reform and changes in their policies toward Iran and Israel.
Since he took office in 2009, Obama tried to engage Assad’s government and promote reforms. The administration welcomed Turkey’s efforts to push backdoor peace talks between Syria and Israel and, over congressional opposition, pointedly returned an ambassador to Damascus in order to restore high-level contacts.
Carney maintained that even though Syria’s government has ignored U.S. calls to stop the recent bloodshed, placing a U.S. ambassador in Damascus has proven useful “precisely because we can speak very clearly in this case regarding our opposition and concern” about the government’s actions.
The United States could yank its ambassador, a powerful but symbolic step, but sanctions probably would come first.
Syria is believed to arm Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that fired thousands of rockets into Israel during a monthlong war in 2006. Syria also houses the headquarters of Hamas, a violently anti-Israel Islamic group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and rocket attacks from its Gaza Strip stronghold. Last month, Israel’s navy seized a ship carrying weapons that it said were sent by Iran and Syria to Hamas.
Aside from some air battles in 1982, Israel and Syria have not gone to war since 1973. Syria has not responded to direct attacks on its soil widely attributed to Israel, including a 2007 airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor or the assassination of a top Lebanese guerrilla the following year.
Syria also has engaged in multiple rounds of peace talks, most recently in 2008. Although these talks have not yielded an agreement, their repeated failure has led to nothing worse than a continued chill. Syria has demanded that Israel relinquish the Golan Heights, a strategic overlook that it captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.