By Jeb Sharp
The Syrian government's crackdown on protesters is forcing the United States to make decisions on Syria. Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he thinks the violence of the past few days marks a turning point and that the United States needs to signal to the government of Bashar Assad that its actions will damage Syria's relations with the West.
"That's something we haven't done over the past few years," Tabler said. "We have focused on engagement and talking behind the scenes and not openly airing disputes in public. Now it's important the Assad regime realizes it's crossed a red line."
The Obama Administration said Monday that it's considering targeted sanctions against Assad and his inner circle. But the White House will also have to decide whether to cut off efforts to engage Syria. Tabler said he thinks it's time for US officials to pull back.
Changing the approach
"I believe in engaging a country based on its behavior, not on what we wish it to be. I'm not speaking from ideology here," Tabler said. "It's simply that the Assad regime's behavior has become worse, we have done very little about it, and now it's time we change this approach."
But other Syria watchers don't want to see the Obama Administration disengage. David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University, advocates keeping up the pressure, but not alienating Syria completely.
"It's a very delicate thing to handle, because if you disengage then you know the dialogue is broken," Lesch said. "I would say don't disengage quite yet."
He added that he hopes the new US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is sending the right signals and meeting with the right people in the Assad government to make Washington's position completely clear.
President Obama came into office hoping to persuade President Assad to sign a peace agreement with Israel and temper Syria's pro-Iran, pro-Hezbollah tendencies. But instead, the administration now faces the possibility of a Syria without Assad, and all the unknowns that might entail. David Lesch said it's an unnerving prospect for US officials.
"They don't want the precipitous fall of the Assad regime, and then perhaps the country collapse a la Iraq, because like Iraq or Lebanon on the other border, [Syria] is ethnically and religiously and economically diverse, and it's in a very strategic area," Lesch said. "Even the Israelis would rather not see that happen. As they've been saying, better the devil you know than the greater uncertainty of political instability and the collapse of a country on their borders."
Lesch wrote a book about Assad and has met him several times. He said he thinks the Syrian president is still in shock that his people are turning against him, but Lesch also thinks Assad was emboldened by the notion that the United States and its allies would not intervene in Syria.
"In the beginning, the Obama Administration was saying outright that Syria is not Libya and Bashar Assad is not Muammar Gaddafi," Lesch said. "Unfortunately I think that may have emboldened the Syrian regime to think that they had more of a free hand to deal with the domestic problem, or they were being signaled that they had more of a free hand."
But thinking he had a free hand to shoot innocent people may prove to be Bashar Assad's downfall in the end. Andrew Tabler used to live in Syria, and he said he's been amazed by the bravery of the Syrian people over the past month, even in areas traditionally loyal to the regime. He said it's hard to imagine Assad turning things back now.