Syria's President Bashar al-Assad clearly is impervious to international criticism of his brutal war against his own people. Perhaps Wednesday's announcement of sanctions by the Obama administration and six other Syrian officials to isolate the regime will make a difference. We'll see.
So far, rebukes by the U.N. Human Rights Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency two weeks ago, as well as limited U.S. and EU sanctions, have not stymied the assault, which began in earnest in mid-March, and thus far have left at least 850 dead, thousands detained and an uncertain number missing.
Covering the popular uprisings in Syria has been a challenging task. Beirut, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi datelines confirm how foreign media, with very rare exception, have been excluded. Opponents of the Assad regime, however, have proven resourceful at getting the word out about daily developments through social media, amateur videos, and cell phones.
That invaluable flow of information from citizens has helped maintain the attention of the U.S. and EU even as they struggle to find the best way to help the Syrian protestors while at the same time dealing with Libya, Yemen and other hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa.
Significantly, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a U.S.-initiated resolution on April 25 urging the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the U.N. to send a mission to Syria that would “investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law.” In another victory for human rights advocates, Syria withdrew its bid for a seat on the council when elections take place this week.
The day before the UNHRC resolution, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Yukiya Amano confirmed publicly that the Syrian facility Israel destroyed in 2007 was indeed a nuclear reactor. That damning admission came after an IAEA inspection team was told upon their April 1 arrival in Syria where they could not go.
Now, the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon reports that the U.S. and its European allies are lobbying the IAEA to formally accuse Damascus of covertly building a nuclear reactor.
While the nuclear program is not directly related to the Assad regime’s massive human rights abuses, Syria’s posture towards these U.N.-affiliated international bodies is the kind of provocative display of defiance that should invite further isolation. But Syria still has allies on the U.N. Security Council, notably Russia, which would block stronger international action.
Interestingly, Assad, the ophthalmologist turned ruthless dictator, also has shown concern for his country’s image in, of all places, the United States. The New York Times Beirut-based correspondent, Anthony Shadid, was invited earlier this month to visit Damascus briefly to interview Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban. “We’re not going to live in this crisis forever,” said Shaaban. “I think now we’ve passed the most dangerous moment.”
From the sanctuary of his presidential palace, Assad must have been pleased that Shaaban’s interview appeared on The Times' front page. It essentially mimicked Assad’s own interview with the Wall Street Journal in January, in which he proclaimed that Syria was immune from the protests that had transformed Egypt and Tunisia.
Shaaban’s remarks, like Assad’s national speech several weeks before, did not calm the situation. Instead, the crackdown has intensified as Syrian tanks and soldiers entered Banias, Daraa, Homs and other cities across the country.
This belies Assad’s repeated promises to institute reforms. Even the long awaited lifting of the decades-old emergency decree, a foundation of the Assad regime’s repression, led to more arrests and deaths.
The regime’s lack of tolerance for any public dissent, especially the weekly Friday mass protests, has produced more carnage. Gunning down mourners at funeral processions, in particular, was a sure way to encourage more public protests and provides another sign of the Assad regime’s despair.
Desperate despots may ultimately take reckless actions without much concern for the wider consequences. And that’s the new danger that concerns all of Syria’s neighbors, none more so than Israel.
Sunday’s organized breach of the border with Israel indicates what the Assad regime might do to try to steer attention away from its domestic rebellion. The U.S. rightly criticized Syria for bussing hundreds of Palestinians to the border as a provocation and allowing many to climb over the fence to clash with Israeli soldiers.
When President Obama delivers a major Middle East policy address on Thursday, he will hopefully speak directly to the situation in Syria, offer real hope to the protestors and a prescription for the demise of the Assad dictatorship. Some may fear the unknown fallout if the regime does collapse. But more frightening are the consequences of indecision.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.