France and Britain came out strongly today to press Syria for a cease-fire, following the deaths of journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, and severe injuries to three other western journalists due to shelling in the city of Homs. European leaders also promised a ban on air cargo flights to and from Syria, prohibition of Syrian sales of gold and other precious metals in Europe, and a freeze on transactions with Syria’s central bank. These come on top of an oil embargo and sanctions on over a hundred top Syrian military and civil officials.
These actions are useful, to be sure, but will not deter Assad; in fact they will likely spur him to hit harder against opposition targets in an attempt to crush the uprising before the economic sanctions cripple his economy or turn business elites against the regime. As long as Assad is receiving weapons and money from Russia and Iran, this is a viable strategy.
What is needed more urgently is strong leadership from the U.S., outlining a plan of escalating sanctions and support for opposition groups that will continue until Assad agrees to transfer power to a transitional government that will hold elections for a legitimate regime. Russia and China must be made to feel more isolated and shamed for supporting a government that is massacring its own people to stay in power. Putin in particular is vulnerable, facing an election in just two weeks, to claims that he is upholding brutal tyranny and supporting a regime that wishes to ignore the voice of its people.
There is hardly any doubt that Syria is of more vital interest to the U.S. than Libya. At the same time, there is no doubt that the situation in Syria is more complex, that the Syrian regime is better armed, or that Russia is more engaged in supporting Assad than they were with Gadhafi. Still, we should not shirk vital interests because defending them is difficult.
The U.S. military is already drawing up multiple options for intervention in Syria, from protecting Assad’s stocks of chemical weapons to arming the opposition to rescuing and aiding civilians. The Obama administration, ever cautious and secretive regarding possible military actions, will no doubt seek to keep a low profile until it decides to act. But one can hope that at the upcoming “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia, the U.S. will be condemning the mass killings of civilians in Syria in no uncertain terms, and laying the groundwork for joint efforts to intervene.
This has to be loud and public. The collapse of the Ghadafi regime was propelled as much by defections from the ruler as by the direct actions of the opposition — indeed the former were essential to the success of the latter. Today it appears that a Syrian general defected with 200 of his troops. Clear promises that the world is planning to act to stop Assad’s slaughter will encourage others to defect; excess caution will deter them.
Let’s hope that U.S. leadership is on view for the Arab world in the coming week, and that it offers meaningful support for the ideals that Obama and Clinton have so often praised in their speeches in this region.