Multilateral Moves May Weaken Assad in Syria

As death toll climbs, the Assad regime loses important regional support.


The death toll in Syria keeps climbing. Since the start of the Arab Spring protests earlier this year, the ruling regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has reportedly killed more than 2,000 people­—including young children—in military attacks against its own people.

But despite international condemnation, the Syrian government is showing little indication that it's ready to stop. On Tuesday, for example, the state-run newspaper, Sana, released a story justifying a recent attack on the city of Hama, a stronghold of the regime's opposition. The article cited an official military source who said forces were starting to leave the city "after completing their mission of protecting civilians and tracking down the armed terrorist groups which had been wreaking havoc in Hama." During that same mission bent on "protecting civilians," which started about 10 days ago, human rights groups report that the Syrian military killed between 150 and 400 of its own people. [See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

Still, as international sanctions cut off the regime's cash and as it loses support from its Arab neighbors, regional experts say that the latest multilateral moves, especially those of regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, could significantly weaken Assad's position. "Saudis pulling their ambassador takes away the regional support that the Assad regime previously enjoyed, which is a huge setback for them," says Andrew Tabler, author of In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.

The uptick in violence has elicited diplomatic responses from other Middle Eastern nations to further isolate Assad's regime. Saudi Arabia—which has strong financial influence within Syria—Kuwait, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Damascus on Monday. And last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of six states in the Gulf region, called for an end to violence. That followed a statement by the United Nations Security Council, which expressed "grave concern," condemned "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities," and called for "an immediate end to all violence." According to Tabler, since the Assad regime only listens historically to multilateral pressure—as was seen after its occupation of Lebanon in 2005—such messages could add up to greater influence on the leader.

The Obama administration has also intensified its rhetoric against Assad. Last Thursday, during a briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said "through his own actions, President Assad has—is ensuring that he and his regime will be left in the past and that the courageous Syrian people who have demonstrated in the streets will determine that country's future." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, have also made similar statements asserting that the Syrian leader has lost his legitimacy. In addition, the White House announced an agreement, along with France and Germany, to "consider additional steps to pressure the Assad regime." [Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

Still, to the chagrin of some Syrian-American activists, such statements fall short of explicitly telling Assad to step down. According to Tabler, explicitly telling the Syrian president to leave office is a last card that the United States and other Western countries are saving for the right moment. "They're trying to pitch it in terms of when the regime might fall. The question is when do you say it, I don't think it's if," he says.

Beyond words it's unclear what options remain for the United States to help the situation, which may also help explain the reluctance to call for Assad to forfeit his power. According to Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the United States has its hands tied against any sort of military intervention, such as the NATO mission against Col. Muammar Qadhafi in Libya. "If they come out strongly against the regime, people will start asking, 'What's the next step?' And they don't really have any next step to take after being involved in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and all of that," he says. [See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]