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A despot lashes out

Syria's bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators reached new levels of brutality this week with the killing of hundreds of civilians in the city of Hama, a hotbed of resistance to the regime of President Bashar Assad. For months, Mr. Assad ignored the international community's mounting condemnation of his repressive tactics, choosing instead to hunker and unleash his security forces against unarmed civilians. He continued to lash out even after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait — nominal allies that have been reluctant to criticize a fellow Sunni Arab leader — took the rare step last week of recalling their ambassadors from Damascus in protest.

Mr. Assad apparently believes he can cow his opponents into submission with brute force, just as his father, former president Hafez al-Assad, did in 1982, when government forces massacred 10,000 civilians in Hama. That operation was carried out with such ruthless efficiency that the world didn't learn the scale of the carnage until weeks later. But in an age of instant communications and satellite television, the younger Mr. al-Assad is unlikely to be able to repeat his father's crushing blow; this time the whole world is watching, and the more innocent blood Mr. Assad spills, the more isolated his regime will become.

Turkey, which put itself forward as a mediator between Mr. Assad and the international community, has clearly been disappointed by its inability to influence Syria's response to the protests. Turkey's foreign minister visited Damascus on Tuesday to warn Mr. Assad off escalating the confrontation — to little apparent effect. Though reports from Hama Wednesday suggested Syrian troops may be withdrawing from the city, Mr. Assad continues to insist his adversaries are armed Islamic militants backed from abroad who are bent on overthrowing his regime, so the lull in fighting is apt to be only temporary.

About the only positive sign so far is that Saudi Arabia and the Arab League have begun to take a lead role in criticizing Syria's refusal to negotiate reforms with the protesters. The U.S. tightened sanctions against Syria this week, but it has few economic ties to the country and little diplomatic leverage despite the Obama administration's previous efforts to engage the al-Assad regime. If Syria's major trading partners in Europe, Russia and China were pressed to tighten the screws as well, it might force Mr. Assad to finally heed the international outcry against his government's repression.

Until that happens, the most likely outcome is a continued stalemate between the government and the opposition. Mr. Assad reportedly can only rely on a handful of elite army units to quell demonstrations, and so must constantly shift them from one hot spot to another, leaving the opposition to reemerge as soon as his soldiers withdraw. But the protesters are disorganized, have no unified political platform and lack the military capacity to overthrow the government. Absent concerted international pressure to force a resolution, the conflict could drag on for years.

The U.S. can encourage its European and Arab partners to squeeze the Assad regime by toughening sanctions on the country's oil exports, which finance a good part of the Syrian government and whose loss would severely strain the country's economy. And the Obama administration may as well acknowledge that its strategy of engaging Syria has failed; at this point it has nothing to lose by openly calling for Mr. Assad's ouster. Mr. Assad will remain intransigent in his determination to oppress as many of his citizens as possible for as long as he believes he can do so without serious consequences. Given the homicidal nature of his regime, the U.S. and the international community must do everything possible to convince the despot that his time is drawing near.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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