US treads warily in Syria, considers sanctions

Despite a ruthless crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators, there is no international appetite for a warlike approach to Syria — a crucial Mideast playmaker with ties to Iran and a say in any eventual Arab peace with Israel.

Updated: Apr 26, 2011, 11:52 AM IST

Washington: Despite a ruthless crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators, there is no international appetite for a warlike approach to Syria — a crucial Mideast playmaker with ties to Iran and a say in any eventual Arab peace with Israel.

In contrast with the quick international decision to launch an air campaign in nearby Libya, the United States is responding cautiously to mounting civilian deaths in Syria, preparing steps such as slapping new travel limits and financial penalties on Syrian leaders.

As violence escalated anew on Monday, the White House stepped up its condemnation of President Bashar Assad`s regime, but stopped well short of demanding the ouster of a leader some U.S. Democrats had considered a potential reformer and peace broker.

U.S. officials said Washington has begun drawing up targeted sanctions against Assad, his family and inner circle to boost pressure on them to halt the repression. Meanwhile, the U.S. also was conferring with European countries and with the United Nations about options for Syria, where more than 350 people have been killed in weeks of protests and government attempts to quell them.

Thousands of soldiers backed by tanks poured Monday into the city where the five-week-old uprising began, opening fire indiscriminately on civilians before dawn and killing at least 11 people, witnesses said. Bodies were scattered in the streets. Widespread arrests — often of men along with their families — appear to be an attempt to intimidate protesters and set an example for the rest of the country.

The offensive was planned in detail with electricity, water and mobile phone services cut off and knife-wielding security agents conducted house-to-house sweeps.

President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced their concern Monday during a telephone call over what the White House called "the Syrian government`s unacceptable use of violence against its own people."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney deplored the latest developments in Syria and said that sanctions against the Assad regime were a possible response "to make clear to the Syrian government that we believe it needs to cease and desist from the violence it`s been perpetrating against its own citizens."

"Syria already is under some significant sanctions by the United States, but we`re looking at other means to increase the pressure on the regime and the Syrian government in a targeted way," Carney said.

He declined to say whether Assad had lost the support of his people, saying "it is up to the people of Syria to decide who its leader should be. That`s what we believe."

Assad appears dug in and prepared to risk international condemnation in order to squash dissent. He faces little danger of invasion or attack from outside his borders, largely because Syria`s neighbors and Western powers fear the consequences of war or the fall of the Assads after four decades of iron rule. And unlike in Libya, there is little evidence of an organized rebel military faction that could take on Assad`s forces with help from outsiders.

And unlike in Libya, and even in Egypt, where a longtime ruler fell earlier this spring, what happens in Syria is likely to have a direct effect on Israel, the main U.S. ally in the Middle East. The crackdown in Syria has ignited debate over whether Israel`s interests would be better served by the survival of the Syrian leader or the end of the one of the most despotic regimes in the Middle East.

The deadly bloodshed in Syria is increasingly unnerving Israeli leaders, who are suddenly confronting the possibility of regime change in the neighboring country after years of relative stability.

Israel and its U.S. backers do not want to be seen as opposing the forces of reform sweeping the region — which have toppled autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and weakened those in Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Bahrain — particularly if they deliver a blow to Israel`s archenemy, Iran.

But although Syria is despised in Israel for its close alliance with Iran and support for the Iranian proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, the Syrian leadership has meticulously enforced quiet along the countries` shared border and has expressed willingness in the past to talk peace with Israel. There is widespread worry is Israel and Washington that if Assad does not survive, any successor could be far more extreme, Islamist and belligerent.

Syria has multiple sectarian divisions, largely kept in check under Assad`s heavy hand and his regime`s secular ideology. Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim.

The Syrian uprising began in mid-March, touched off by the arrest of teenagers in Daraa who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall. But the relentless crackdowns have only emboldened protesters, who started with calls for modest reforms but are now increasingly demanding Assad`s downfall.

New U.S. penalties would likely involve asset freezes and travel bans on Assad, members of his family and senior regime officials. Syria already is subject to numerous penalties as it is deemed a "state sponsor of terrorism" by the State Department. The new sanctions being considered would target specific individuals accused of ordering or committing human rights abuses, a U.S. official said.

PTI