U.S. denounces Syrian violence, but can't do much about it

McClatchy NewspapersJune 13, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Beyond daily condemnations, the Obama administration is handcuffed from doing much, if anything, to stop Syria from slaughtering its people.

The United States doesn't have the kinds of economic, military or political ties it could marshal into effective diplomatic pressure in Syria, as it did in Egypt.

And it probably couldn't muster the kind of allied military action that it did against the Libyan regime. The Libya campaign showed that NATO is a weakened force that might not be able to mount a second simultaneous operation.

Then, too, there's precious little popular support in the war-weary U.S. for more military action. And there's no agreement internationally to go after Syria, either in the Arab League or in the United Nations.

Last but not least, Saudi Arabia opposes any move to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. As the world's top oil producer and a key U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia has sway with the White House.

"The United States," said Aram Nerguizian, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "has few levers to pull."

After a weekend of increasing government violence against the Syrian people, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday issued his third condemnation in four days. But he left the door open to Assad staying in power, refusing to say that he's lost the legitimacy to govern, as the White House said of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

"The president has made clear that President Assad needs to engage in political dialogue, that the transition there needs to take place towards more political freedom, and that if President Assad does not lead that transition then he should step aside," Carney said.

Carney also stressed that circumstances in Syria are different from those in Libya, noting that in Libya there was international agreement to act as Gadhafi moved to kill more of his people in the besieged city of Benghazi.

That and other major differences make it harder, if not impossible, to force Syria to bend to the popular forces of the Arab Spring.

Diplomatically, the United States has few of the tools it had in Egypt. It doesn't have broad commercial ties with Syria; thus, economic sanctions have little effect. It doesn't have the close military-to-military relationship that the Pentagon had with the Egyptian military, which allowed back-channel pressure on the Egyptians to hold their fire as protesters poured into the streets of Cairo. And the U.S. sent an ambassador back to Damascus only recently, hardly enough time to build relationships.

Even if it could bring such pressures to bear, it's unclear whether Assad would bow to them.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Sunday that it might take military intervention to stop Assad. "You need to put on the table all options, including a model like we have in Libya."

But Libya may have stretched NATO too thin already.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that two months of airstrikes in Libya had revealed "shortcomings, in both capability and will, that have the potential to jeopardize the alliance's ability to conduct an integrated, effective and sustained air-sea campaign."

Among them: The NATO control center can barely handle the 150 sorties a day against Libya, and the campaign is running short of bombs and missiles.

Also, this country is in no mood for more warfare. On Libya, Americans oppose U.S. military involvement by a ratio of about 2 to 1, according to several recent polls. Congress also is balking at the extended Libya campaign.

At the same time, Obama's under public pressure to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. He's said he'll start withdrawing by the end of July but that it will take until 2014 to complete the pullout.

Moreover, nearly half of Americans think the U.S. should "mind its own business" abroad, according to a new Pew Research Center poll, a figure the center called "among the highest measures of isolationist sentiment in more than half a century."

Finally, there's far less international support to go into Syria than there was for Libya.

"Libya was made possible by a decision by the Arab League, which gave the international community the umbrella it needed to go in. You don't have the same consensus on Syria," said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan and a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In particular, Saudi Arabia opposes any move that could weaken Assad's grip on power.

The Saudis worry that Assad's overthrow would ignite massive unrest among Syria's ethnic and religious groups that could spill across its borders, unhinging the delicate sectarian peace in Lebanon and stoking tensions across the region.

"It's clear that the Saudis have responded reflexively in opposing any of the 'Arab Spring' uprisings, including, evidently, in Syria. They've had a negative, kneejerk response toward them," said Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute for Peace.

The Saudis' fear of regional turmoil, she said, outweighs even the advantage they'd gain over Iran if Assad were ousted. Assad is Iran's main ally in the Arab world and the Saudis' main rival.

Said Muasher of the Carnegie Endowment: "As of now, I don't see the possibility of outside intervention."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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