Washington – Though many expected the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to bring a significant boost to the beleaguered Syrian opposition movement, the past two weeks have instead brought the bloodiest government offensives to date.
In response, a number of Western and Middle Eastern states, along with the United Nations and Arab League, have significantly turned up the heat against the government of Bashar Al-Assad.
Early last week, Syrian security forces sealed off and blacked out the city of Hama, cutting access to power, water and medical supplies as the army systematically scourged the city of opposition sympathisers.
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A similar offensive was launched days later in the nearby city of Jisr Al-Shughour, which had previously been free of direct government control since the uprising began earlier this year.
Using the pretext of “fighting a terrorist infiltration“, Syrian security forces have deployed tanks, snipers and armed gangs across the city, leaving scores dead.
In response to the escalating violence, Washington was quick to denounce the attacks and has slightly stepped up its language, hinting at the necessity of Assad's overthrow.
At a State Department press conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that, “President Assad is…ensuring that he and his regime will be left in the past,” stopping just short of directly calling for his ouster. The press conference followed a statement from President Barack Obama the previous week, in which he similarly promised to “continue to increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, Clinton defended the administration's unwillingness to directly call for Assad's ouster: “It's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go. Okay. Fine. What's next? If Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”
Perhaps most significant of all, the once-sympathetic Turkish government has grown increasingly vocal about the need for political change in Syria.
After a strongly-worded statement by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Turkey dispatched Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to speak directly with President Assad, along with a warning that Syria must “immediately and unconditionally” cease attacks against protestors, or else face unspecified consequences.
Despite the increasing pressure from Ankara, and claims from Secretary Clinton that the State Department has been working closely with Turkey to coordinate their messaging toward the Syrian government, the official Turkish position remains difficult to pin down, vacillating between threats of direct action and a categorical rejection of any foreign interference in Syria.
The widespread international condemnation has nevertheless given space for the U.S. to ramp up its rhetoric, and Washington has successfully passed another round of sanctions targeting more regime figures and a number of Syrian mobile and banking institutions.
Despite these actions, however, there still appears to be no consensus over how Washington should move forward.
A number of prominent analysts, including Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have strongly backed increased sanctions against the Syrian government, coupled with stronger U.N. resolutions against the Assad regime.
At a panel entitled “Syria on the Verge: Implications for A Nation in Revolt”, hosted by the Middle East Institute, Tabler used the example of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 to suggest that “the Syrian regime does move in the face of concerted multilateral pressure.”
He ominously argued that tougher sanctions on the Syrian “trading culture” could lead to “a coup…that could lead to some kind of democratic process or elections process.”
Others, however, have been far less optimistic about the efficacy of sanctions, particularly towards a state that has been under some form of U.S. sanctions for the better part of a decade.
Bassam Haddad, director of the Middle East programme at George Mason University and co-founder of the news and analysis website Jadaliyya.com, has claimed that “the U.S. is probably not qualified to intervene on behalf of democracy in the region, so its hesitance might actually be the best thing it's doing.”
Even Secretary Clinton has acknowledged that the U.S. was limited in its efficacy toward Syria because of a “long history of challenging problems with them”.
Washington's limited reach is further constrained by the absence of a cohesive, internationally-recognised opposition.
At the MEI event, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Theodore Kattouf explained that, “There is an understandable reluctance on the part of the administration [to institute stronger measures] not knowing a lot about the opposition.”
Kattouf warned that the absence of a cohesive, palatable opposition will continue to stay Washington's hand, in order to avoid empowering unfriendly or undemocratic factions in Syria. “As brave as the opposition has been, and as peaceful as it has been, there's always the worry that someone one day will say, 'who allowed the Salafis into Syria?'”
Radwan Ziadeh, one of the central opposition figures calling for greater pressure and sanctions, has roundly dismissed the presence of violent reactionaries within the ranks of the opposition.
He argues that increasing U.S. pressure would “encourage more Arab countries and European countries to do the same”, which he hopes “will encourage more army officers to defect”. The mechanism by which international sanctions would drive notable Syrian figures to the opposition, however, remains unclear.
“There's no magic incantation that's going to cause this regime to collapse,” said Kattouf. “There's got to be a way to throw a lifeline to the people who have been keeping the regime in power. If they feel like they're going to go down with the regime, then they're going to fight, and fight very hard.”
The situation may be changing, however, as outrage over the Hama and Jisr Al-Shughour massacres have catalysed some of the largest demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo to date, precipitating a violent response that the two cities had hitherto been spared.
Even as the opportunity for involvement widens, Washington's slowly increasing response has been characteristically slow and cautious. In a telling example of the lack of political will, the formal appointment of Ambassador Robert Ford was indefinitely postponed last week after only one senator sat through his confirmation hearing.
The debate over Ford's appointment has mirrored the division in Washington's policy towards Syria in general, with a similar result. Since no one seems to agree on the best course of action, the default in Washington has been to do nothing.