Bashar al-Assad Watches the Bullets Fly (image: ssoosay)

If it’s possible, things are getting even more intense in Syria. The incursion into Hama, site of a large massacre of citizens at the hands of the regime in 1982, carries symbolic significance, as well as continuing the brutal repression which has killed or disappeared thousands since the start of the uprising. One Hama resident told Reuters that “the regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama.”

But the media glare hasn’t totally turned away from Syria. UPI noticed that tanks rolled into the central square. The Washington Post bore witness to cut phone, water and electricity lines. This is the prelude to a massacre of an entire large city, as big as Benghazi. And Syria is feeling some external pressure.

Russia, an important ally of Syria, signaled new support for possible Security Council action, Syrian democracy activists received a warm welcome in Washington, Italy withdrew its ambassador to Damascus, and the United Nations Secretary General and top rights official both issued blunt rebukes of Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

At the United Nations, the Security Council convened for a second day to discuss possible action that would punish Syria. Russia and China, two of the Council’s permanent members, had threatened previously to veto a proposed resolution, but Kremlin officials in Moscow suggested on Tuesday that they might have softened their position. Whether that means Russia might now support a Security Council resolution or some lesser form of reprimand aimed at Syria remained unclear.

[cont’d.]

“We are not categorically against everything,” Sergei Vershinin, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department, told reporters in Moscow. “We are categorically against what doesn’t help bring forward a peaceful settlement.”

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, made some of his strongest criticisms yet, saying through a spokesman that he believed the Syrian president had “lost all sense of humanity.”

But what will that do, really, to a regime fighting for its survival? US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said at a Congressional hearing that the US must “amplify the voices” of the Syrian opposition. But his thoughts speak to the delicate situation in which the US finds itself with respect to Syria:

FORD: First of all the protesters there are peaceful. As I think I mentioned, the one weapon I saw a slingshot. As I said these men are not gunmen. … But the second point I came with was, they are not against foreigners. We told them we were American diplomats and they said, “Oh! America! Great! Go ahead! Please pass!” … They’re not anti-American at all. In fact I think they appreciated the attention that the United States showed to their cause and that they were peaceful.

But the people in Hama and elsewhere are quite committed to change and I don’t think they’re going to stop. And so I think we owe it to them to remain supportive and it try to build that support wisely, carefully but to build that support.

Emphasis on wisely and carefully. The US has limits to their options in Syria. The international coalition for direct action is not as big as it was in Libya, and even if it was, it would be completely unwise to jump into yet another civil war, even as the humanitarian concerns are arguably greater in Syria (these protesters are unarmed). Economic sanctions are an option without a lot of relevance considering the isolation of the country before the uprising. “Tough talk” is just that.

Blake Hounshell has some interesting thoughts:

For one thing, it’s not up to the United States whether al-Assad stays or goes — that’s a choice only the Syrian people can make. And with no way to know whether a majority supports regime change, it would hardly be wise to declare al-Assad illegitimate and denounce dialogue with the government as folly without a critical mass of Syrians making it clear they felt the same.

Second, the Syrian opposition is a bit of a mess right now. Years of repression inside the country and fragmentation outside of it has (understandably) made it hard for a motley crew of activists, professionals and ideologues from all over the world to band together around a common agenda. The State Department has been urging the opposition to choose official representatives and start laying out a serious agenda for a democratic transition so that the “silent majority” of Syrians who have sat out the protests begin to see it a viable alternative to al-Assad, but these things take time.

We don’t necessarily have the ability to magically change events unfolding in the Middle East, as we have seen throughout this uprising. The Syrian people have bravely defied Assad, despite being unarmed and overmatched. I absolutely agree that they should be supported, but there’s no one way to do that.

Believe it or not, Tom Friedman has a decent, if facile, column on Syria today. The words “Lexus” and “olive tree” don’t appear.

If it’s possible, things are getting even more intense in Syria. The incursion into Hama, site of a large massacre of citizens at the hands of the regime in 1982, carries symbolic significance, as well as continuing the brutal repression which has killed or disappeared thousands since the start of the uprising. One Hama resident told Reuters that “the regime is using the media focus on the Hosni Mubarak trial to finish off Hama.”

But the media glare hasn’t totally turned away from Syria. UPI noticed that tanks rolled into the central square. The Washington Post bore witness to cut phone, water and electricity lines. This is the prelude to a massacre of an entire large city, as big as Benghazi. And Syria is feeling some external pressure.

Russia, an important ally of Syria, signaled new support for possible Security Council action, Syrian democracy activists received a warm welcome in Washington, Italy withdrew its ambassador to Damascus, and the United Nations Secretary General and top rights official both issued blunt rebukes of Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

At the United Nations, the Security Council convened for a second day to discuss possible action that would punish Syria. Russia and China, two of the Council’s permanent members, had threatened previously to veto a proposed resolution, but Kremlin officials in Moscow suggested on Tuesday that they might have softened their position. Whether that means Russia might now support a Security Council resolution or some lesser form of reprimand aimed at Syria remained unclear.

“We are not categorically against everything,” Sergei Vershinin, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Department, told reporters in Moscow. “We are categorically against what doesn’t help bring forward a peaceful settlement.”

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, made some of his strongest criticisms yet, saying through a spokesman that he believed the Syrian president had “lost all sense of humanity.”

But what will that do, really, to a regime fighting for its survival? US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said at a Congressional hearing that the US must “amplify the voices” of the Syrian opposition. But his thoughts speak to the delicate situation in which the US finds itself with respect to Syria:

FORD: First of all the protesters there are peaceful. As I think I mentioned, the one weapon I saw a slingshot. As I said these men are not gunmen. … But the second point I came with was, they are not against foreigners. We told them we were American diplomats and they said, “Oh! America! Great! Go ahead! Please pass!” … They’re not anti-American at all. In fact I think they appreciated the attention that the United States showed to their cause and that they were peaceful.

But the people in Hama and elsewhere are quite committed to change and I don’t think they’re going to stop. And so I think we owe it to them to remain supportive and it try to build that support wisely, carefully but to build that support.

Emphasis on wisely and carefully. The US has limits to their options in Syria. The international coalition for direct action is not as big as it was in Libya, and even if it was, it would be completely unwise to jump into yet another civil war, even as the humanitarian concerns are arguably greater in Syria (these protesters are unarmed). Economic sanctions are an option without a lot of relevance considering the isolation of the country before the uprising. “Tough talk” is just that.

Blake Hounshell has some interesting thoughts:

For one thing, it’s not up to the United States whether al-Assad stays or goes — that’s a choice only the Syrian people can make. And with no way to know whether a majority supports regime change, it would hardly be wise to declare al-Assad illegitimate and denounce dialogue with the government as folly without a critical mass of Syrians making it clear they felt the same.

Second, the Syrian opposition is a bit of a mess right now. Years of repression inside the country and fragmentation outside of it has (understandably) made it hard for a motley crew of activists, professionals and ideologues from all over the world to band together around a common agenda. The State Department has been urging the opposition to choose official representatives and start laying out a serious agenda for a democratic transition so that the “silent majority” of Syrians who have sat out the protests begin to see it a viable alternative to al-Assad, but these things take time.

We don’t necessarily have the ability to magically change events unfolding in the Middle East, as we have seen throughout this uprising. The Syrian people have bravely defied Assad, despite being unarmed and overmatched. I absolutely agree that they should be supported, but there’s no one way to do that.

Believe it or not, Tom Friedman has a decent, if facile, column on Syria today. The words “Lexus” and “olive tree” don’t appear.

David Dayen

David Dayen