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What's Going On In Syria?

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A Sunni gunman is seen near a burning building during clashes that erupted in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Saturday, June 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
A Sunni gunman is seen near a burning building during clashes that erupted in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Saturday, June 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Fifteen months after the start of protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad, Syria is in a dire situation. Trapped in a bloody stalemate, it remains unclear where the country is headed.

More than 12,000 people have lost their lives since March 2011, hundreds of Syrians are imprisoned in degrading conditions, and tens of thousands have fled to neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

Yet even as the violence intensifies -- punctuated last Friday by a brutal massacre of women and children in Houla, Homs province -- the international community has been unable to develop a unified response to the bloodshed. A UN-brokered peace plan and the presence of UN monitors in the country have done little to ease tensions. The Assad regime has failed to budge under international diplomatic and economic sanctions, and Syria’s opposition appears to be deeply divided. As the violence slips toward full-blown civil war, the situation in Syria becomes increasingly volatile, threatening to destabilize the entire region.

So what happens now? HuffPost World looks at some of the options on the table.

CONTINUED STALEMATE
In a recent address to the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was pessimistic about Syria’s future. Rice described a worst-case security situation in which the Assad regime does not concede and rebels continue their violent opposition. Rice predicted: "The violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies ... It involves countries in the region, it takes on increasingly sectarian forms, and we have a major crisis not only in Syria but in the region."

U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL ACTION
In the wake of the mass killings of over 100 civilians near a group of villages in Houla, governments around the world have called for the U.N. Security Council to take action. The Council could either issue a new resolution condemning Syria’s actions, or it could agree to impose further sanctions on Syria and its leadership.

It is unlikely that a U.N. condemnation would pressure Bashar al Assad and his regime to change their tactics. Past resolutions condemning Syria’s regime have failed to make Assad change course, and economic sanctions have not sufficiently depleted the government’s resources.

Members of the Security Council are also divided, with Russia and China refusing to support far-reaching measures against their Syrian ally. "There are no signs Russia and China are ready to support tougher steps at the U.N., despite what happened in Houla," a Security Council diplomat told Reuters on Wednesday.

The Security Council also could decide to expand the current monitoring mission in Syria. However, the presence of the observers has failed to significantly reduce the violence so far.

INTERNATIONAL MILITARY INTERVENTION
Bearing in mind the failures of economic and diplomatic pressure, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman (CT) argues that the time has come for international military intervention against the Syrian regime. Lieberman calls for "the kind of American and allied airpower" similar to what was used to oust Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year.

Although certain groups within Syria’s opposition have joined this call for international intervention, most international actors seem wary of launching a new military operation in the Middle East.

Analysts warn that intervention could cause more bloodshed and that there are crucial differences between the situation in Syria and the final days of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. The Syrian opposition is divided and it remains unclear who would take over in case of a sudden regime change. Despite numerous defections, Syria’s army still stands strong. The country is also densely populated, making the option of airstrikes problematic.

As Josie Delap notes in The Economist: “Behind Libya looms the spectre of Iraq, another military intervention in a Middle Eastern country that sparked years of conflict in which more than 100,000 people died. Syria, with its complex sectarian and ethnic divisions, has more in common with Iraq than with Libya.

LESS INTRUSIVE INTERVENTIONIST STRATEGIES
The international community could decide to arm opposition forces in Syria. Weapon shipments by Qatar and Saudi Arabia already have increased the rebels’ reach. Yet as the International Crisis Group notes, shipments would be unable to arm the opposition enough for them to take on Assad’s well-equipped army.

Other options include the establishment of a humanitarian corridor or safe zones near the Turkish border.

THE YEMENI MODEL
Another option would allow Syrian President Bashar Assad to negotiate a deal similar to the one the U.S. struck with Yemen's long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. As Foreign Policy points out, this scenario could allow for President Assad to relinquish power and leave the country while leaving the regime intact. Yet it is highly unlikely that the Syrian opposition will agree to Assad’s graceful exit. “The bloodshed is too extreme,” Bilal Y. Saab writes.

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