One can only look on the continuing violence in Syria with a
mixture of awe, anguish, and dismay. Awe because so many Syrians continue to
protest against the Assad government, despite the enormous personal risks that
this entails. Anguish and dismay because there is relatively little that
outside powers can do to bring about a speedy end to the crisis, apart from the
measures that have already been taken (which I support).
The Obama administration has come under some criticism for not turning against Assad sooner. I'm inclined to cut them some slack here, because it would have been far better had the United States, Turkey, and a few others been able to convince Assad to begin a genuine process of dialogue, compromise, and liberalization. So it was worth trying to see if a deal could be struck, even if that effort ultimately failed. Having tried to give the Assad regime a way out also made it much easier to line up international support for sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The central difficulty at this stage is two-fold: 1) the regime has no easy exit options and thus every incentive to fight on, and 2) its opponents inside and outside the country -- including the United States -- do not have a lot of attractive ways to put more pressure on the regime. Let's consider each aspect in turn.
Assad's problem now is that he's lost any chance of a genuine compromise and must therefore fight on in the hopes that he can cow the opposition and restore order. Regrettably, that is precisely what his father managed to do when he crushed an uprising in Hama in 1982 (killing some 20,000 people in the process). Once an authoritarian ruler rejects compromise and liberalization and launches a bloody crackdown instead, they have to do whatever it takes to win. With 3,500 people already dead, no one in Syria would believe any offers Assad might subsequently make to share power, and Assad and his cronies undoubtedly know that the risk of future retribution will be considerable if other actors in Syria ever gain real political power.
The other option for Assad, of course, is accepting a graceful flight into exile (presumably with a pile of cash to pay for a comfortable retirement). Several Arab states have reportedly offered Assad this sort of safe haven, and other notorious dictators (such as Uganda's Idi Amin) left power in this way. But that option isn't very attractive for Assad either, because leaders with bloody hands now face international prosecution for crimes against humanity. Furthermore, this hypothetical option would only be available to Assad, his family, and perhaps his inner circle of advisors. But other members of the government are implicated in the crackdown -- most of them drawn from the minority Alawi sect -- and they would be inclined to fight on even if Assad himself were to leave. This situation helps us understand why the regime and its security forces haven't cracked yet: they just don't have a lot of options at this point and they must either hang together (or hang separately).
The problem for the United States, Turkey, and other opponents of the regime is that there are real costs and risks to trying to do a lot more than they are already doing. Syria is more urban, mountainous, and densely-populated than Libya, so an air campaign against the regime's security forces would be a far trickier affair and Syria could respond to a drone campaign or other overt military action in ways that we might find unpleasant. Moreover, Assad's security forces are mostly conducting small-scale operations against unarmed civilians, not massed army assaults on cities, so they are less vulnerable to an air campaign. Libya was also a minor player far from the center of Middle East politics, but Syria lies in the heart of the region and instability there could easily reverberate into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Assad, for all his faults, is not as hated or despised as Qaddafi was, which means we aren't likely to get the same support from the Arab League that we had during the Libyan campaign. And we will never get UN Security Council authorization for military action, because both China and Russia are opposed. (This situation, by the way, is at least partly fallout from the Libya intervention, which Moscow and Beijing regard as having exceeded the Security Council mandate. It also reflects their enduring concern to limit U.S. efforts to dictate conditions in the Middle East.)
Hence the dismay one feels when reading news accounts and watching videos of the violence being wreaked against Syrian civilians, and when one remembers that their movement began in a completely peaceful manner. I fear that the Syrian tragedy will grind on for many months, and its principal victims will be ordinary Syrians who dreamt of a more open political order, and dared to think they could bring them about. And because societies take a long time to recover from extended bouts of internal violence (see under: Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, etc.), the consequences of this tragedy are likely to be with us for a long time after it is finally resolved.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.