08/24/2011 05:17 pm ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

Is US Disavowal of Syria's Assad a Game Changer?

When the United States gets its diplomatic claws around a country's throat, does it mean the beginning of the end? It seems to have worked in Libya and elsewhere but Syria is not Libya.

Announcements by the United States, Britain, France and Germany and the European Union declaring President Bashar Assad persona non grata is bound to energize domestic protest groups and give an incentive to the European Union to cut off Syria's oil exports, a major source of revenue. Neighboring Turkey has expressed dismay and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar were among those who voted for a Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva to condemn violence by Syrian Authorities and dispatch a fact-finding team.

Unlike in Libya, NATO or other Western military intervention against Damascus is not on the horizon. Syria also has some friends in the region -- Iran, Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement. And Russia, once its main arms supplier, has not given up yet on Assad. So with military action ruled out, sanctions are the next best bet. The hope is that business leaders will realize they are isolated although so far those Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime still support it. Assad is also more or less backed by the many minority groups (Christians, Kurds, Druze, Armenians and others), apprehensive of chaos if the Sunni majority takes over from Assad's Alawite clique that controls the military and other government institutions.

Proposed UN sanctions resolution
Unfortunately, a key test of American clout is a new Security Council resolution placing targeted sanctions on Syria. Russia, which has veto power in the 15-nation Council, has made its opposition clear. Philip Parham, Britain's deputy U.N. ambassador, told reporters it includes an arms embargo, a travel ban and assets freeze "on individuals and entities," adding that his government wanted to move "as quickly as possible."

The draft, drawn up by the Europeans and supported by the United States, also condemns violence against protestors and says that the government may have committed crimes against humanity, diplomats said. But it does not recommend Assad appear before the International Criminal Court, as was the case with Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Russia is standing firm in the Security Council, the only body that can impose punitive measures worldwide. Its ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters, "We don't think so," when asked about an imposition of sanctions on Assad and 22 senior government officials. Asked by this reporter if he thought Syria would institute reforms, he said "Yes but it takes time." Since protests began, Assad has lifted the emergency law, abolished state security courts, among other measures.

But he has also stepped up repression. At least 2200 demonstrators have died, the UN reported.

India, Brazil and South Africa, middle weight rotating members of the Council, want to take an independent position but have continuously sided with Russia and China, fearing a repeat of Libya when a resolution approved military action to protect civilians and resulted in support for regime change. Yet this group could insist that any Syrian resolution specifically exclude military intervention rather than blocking all measures against the government.

Syria contends that any country has a right to put down rioters. Its UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, accused Washington and its allies of waging a "diplomatic and humanitarian war" against Syria to "settle old accounts." He said the French had invaded his country when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and that the United States had conducted war after war based on lies and deception in Cuba, Vietnam and Iraq. "Thank God, we have wise guys inside the Council," he told reporters."

To make sure Syria does not receive any more bad publicity, Russia and others prevented Navanethem Pillay , the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, from reciting on camera on Monday the highlights of her 22-page report on Syria, issued earlier (the same happened with her oral report on South Kordofan in Sudan). Here are some of her conclusions, based on interviews with 180 Syrian refugees :


The Syrian government, her report said, participated in a "pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity" with some security agencies apparently practicing a "shoot to kill policy." Her agency compiled a list of 1,900 civilians killed, including 353 summarily executed.

"Victims of arbitrary arrests declared they were beaten and humiliated with insults referring to their religious, democratic and political beliefs." The worst were ethnic Alawite militia, called Shabbiha, which shot at unarmed civilians, including children, with sniper fire. Syrian soldiers who refused to kill civilians, were themselves killed, the report said.

Responding to Syria's contention that demonstrators were armed, the report acknowledged there were violent incidents. But it said the majority of killings "were due to live ammunition coming from security forces, the military and Shabbiha." The full report can be accessed here.

Says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy of Assad:

"He's in a dictator's dilemma. He's doubling down with his security solution--or tripling down or quadrupling down--because he believes that works. The problem now is that even if he launches true reforms that would democratize the country and lead to a democratic transition, it would undermine the very people in the security services and the army on which he's relying to keep order because they would lose power and influence. So, he's in a real jam."

To most experts, the question is not whether there will be real reform in Syria but how long Assad can hold out.