On the eve of a major address on the Middle East, President Obama took a significant step Wednesday in responding to the Syrian government's recent crackdown against protesters.
Obama signed an executive order imposing sanctions aimed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as several other top Syrian officials. The sanctions include freezing assets that fall under U.S. jurisdiction and, for the most part, barring American individuals and companies from trading with the Syrian officials.
"President al-Assad and his regime must immediately end the use of violence, answer the calls of the Syrian people for a more representative government, and embark upon the path of meaningful democratic reform," David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department's acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
It was by far the strongest U.S. reaction yet to Syria's crackdown. Over the past two months, Syrian authorities have killed hundreds of protesters and jailed thousands more, according to human rights groups.
Still, the U.S. holds limited sway over Syria. And it's far from clear that the package of sanctions will do much to weaken Assad's strong grip on power.
"In the case of Syria, there is not even a hint of any solution," says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "No one has any idea of how to impose a solution without a war."
Not Another Libya
What's happening now in Syria mirrors some of the fears about what would have happened in the absence of outside intervention in Libya, suggests Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.
"What we've heard about in Syria is security forces going door to door and picking up young men and letting them out to spread fear about what happens when you get picked up," he says.
The Obama administration had come under some criticism in the Muslim world for not acting more forcefully as protesters were confronted with guns and tanks in Syria, after taking part in an international bombing campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Libya did set an embarrassing precedent in this regard, says Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. But it also has acted as something of a brake against taking such action elsewhere.
"There was an over-optimistic belief that NATO air power would really level the playing field in a way, so that Gadhafi would go relatively quickly," Cook says. "And that's one of the reasons why you see a tremendous amount of reluctance to do much of anything with regard to the Syrians, another terrible regime."
Cook argues that the U.S. should take advantage of the moment in Syria, which is seeing its largest protest movement in decades. Ousting Assad represents a "tremendous strategic opportunity," he says.
"There doesn't seem to me to be any reason to believe that any successor regime in Syria would want to continue the strategic relationship that the Assads have had with Iran," Cook says.
But few observers believe there is any chance the U.S. would be willing to go to war in Syria. Unlike Libya, military action there would lack the political cover lent by the support of other Arab nations. Assad has not inspired the same near-universal enmity as Gadhafi.
Some analysts contend that Syria was signaling to Israel and the West that any attempt to destabilize the Assad regime will bring more chaos of the kind seen on Sunday, when more than 100 Palestinians streamed across the border into the Golan Heights area controlled by Israel.
"If there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel," Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin and the country's leading businessman, told The New York Times last week.
Failure To Gain Traction
Internally, Assad has made some changes, such as dismissing his Cabinet and suspending the emergency law that had been in place since 1963. For the most part, however, Assad has made it clear that he has no intention either of surrendering power or offering fundamental reforms of the sort protesters seek.
Although the protests have lasted for two months, things have been quiet in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's major cities and home to the bulk of the nation's population. "There are a number of people there well tied into the regime, who are not suffering," says Lustick, the Penn professor. "Also, the state's repressive apparatus is well-known to be concentrated there."
The opposition has not yet gained anything like the momentum sufficient to make Assad's fall seem inevitable, which Lustick says likely would be necessary to convince key figures within the regime and a greater share of the populace to turn openly against him.
"Unfortunately, what's happened in Syria is not terribly well-organized by the opposition and it doesn't seem to be happening anywhere very important," says Peter Sluglett, a historian at the University of Utah Middle East Center.
Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite sect that makes up 12 percent of the Syrian population. The Alawites, along with other minority groups such as the Kurds and Christians — not to mention the military, which is closely tied to the regime — would want reassurance that they will be treated well under a new order before they would consider supporting the opposition, Lustick says.
But the opposition lacks sufficient traction or stature to be able to make such promises, Lustick argues. "Minorities and some business interests don't want to see the regime go, because they fear what happened in Iraq or what happened in Lebanon," says Steve Tamari, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Many observers, including Tamari, are convinced that the tone of Syrian politics has been irrevocably altered by the weeks of protests. At this point, however, it's difficult to foresee Assad falling from power anytime soon.
"When we were talking about Tunisia and Egypt, we were thinking in terms of weeks and months," before the regimes there would fall, Lustick says. "In Syria, if I had to bet on it, I would say it would take more than 10 years." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.