In numbers

2,000: Number of civilians killed in Syria in the past five months, according to the UN

10,000: Estimated number of protesters detained since the civil unrest began

Source: MEED

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is cutting an increasingly isolated figure. International demands for an end to armed attacks on protesters that according to the UN have resulted in almost 2,000 deaths in the past five months have failed to convince the government to withdraw its forces. Promised reforms have also come to nothing. Now, with patience growing thin, there have been calls for Al-Assad to step down and proposals are being discussed for widespread sanctions.

The international intervention in Libya highlighted the US’ lack of appetite for overseas military action

On 18 August, US President Barack Obama declared that “for the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Al-Assad to step aside”. The same day, the UK, France and Germany issued a joint statement demanding that Al-Assad “leave power, for the greater interest of Syria and the unity of his people”.

Regional outcry

Others have fallen short of calling for Al-Assad to step down, but have been increasingly vociferous in their demands that the fighting stop. On 10 August, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Al-Assad to “stop all kinds of violence and bloodshed”, saying that he hoped that “all will be realised in 10-15 days, and steps taken towards the reform process”. On 15 August, Erdogan demanded that military operations “stop immediately and unconditionally”, adding that it was Ankara’s “final word” on the subject.

The legitimacy of Al-Assad is dented … but I think he will battle out the challenges to his leadership

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, School of Oriental and African Studies in London

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev declared that if Al-Assad fails to introduce reforms, restore peace and reconcile with the opposition “he will face a sad fate”. Three days later, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said that Syria should think seriously about reforms “before it’s too late”. Riyadh has withdrawn its ambassador to Damascus, as have Kuwait, Bahrain, Tunisia, Italy and Switzerland.

Since protests began, Al-Assad has announced several political concessions. On 19 April, parliament passed a bill revoking a 48-year-old emergency law giving the government power to arrest people without charge and a decree has been issued allowing peaceful protests. A committee has been set up to examine media freedoms and the government has announced a national consultation process to consider the legalisation of political parties, beyond the ruling Baath Party, and a revision of the constitution.

An amnesty for political prisoners was announced on 31 May, followed by a second amnesty a month later. In a concession to the country’s Sunni Muslims, who make up about three quarters of the population, a ban on teachers wearing the Islamic veil was removed.

The regime, however, has categorically failed to deliver on its promises. The systematic use of military force against its citizens has continued. Although hundreds of political prisoners were released following the government’s May amnesty, an estimated 10,000 protesters have been detained since mid-March.

For all their rhetoric, the world’s leaders have proved utterly powerless to influence the situation. While the international demands on Syria have become increasingly belligerent, no one has said what will happen in the case of non-compliance. The reality is that the alternatives are extremely limited.

The ultimate sanction – that of force – is not a viable option. Russia and China have pointedly refused to back calls for Al-Assad to stand down and, as permanent members of the Security Council, are likely to block the imposition of UN sanctions, let alone the use of force. Similarly, the Cairo-based Arab League, which crucially gave its backing to intervention in Libya, is unlikely to sponsor an armed intervention in Syria, given the complexity of its ties with the rest of the Arab world and the threat of instability spreading elsewhere in the region.

Even if such a move were politically possible, the will to intervene militarily is lacking. The international intervention in Libya highlighted the lack of appetite in the US for overseas military action, as well as Europe’s struggle to make up the shortfall in resources. And even if the will were there, the military case is weak. The lack of a coherent opposition force in Syria to which support can be lent, the strength of the regime’s armed forces, and the threat of retaliatory action from Syria’s closest ally, Iran, would make such a venture hard to justify.

Realistic option

Toughened economic sanctions are a more realistic option. On 18 August, Washington added to existing sanctions by freezing Syria’s US assets and banning US firms from trading in Syrian petroleum products. The EU has issued an arms embargo against Syria and introduced targeted sanctions against Al-Assad and 34 other leading regime figures. Proposals are now being drawn up to broaden the sanctions to cover another 15 regime members and an embargo on oil imports.

The hope is that such sanctions would embolden the opposition movement, while undermining the business community, which so far has helped ensure that Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s main commercial centres, have remained largely supportive of the regime. But the generalised sanctions also run the risk of affecting the very people they are designed to protect. The UK government has already said it is reluctant to support sanctions that might harm the welfare of the Syrian people.

Sanctions ineffective

Sanctions have been notoriously ineffective elsewhere in the world and there is little evidence to suggest that Syria would be any different. Even if they can be successfully targeted against the regime, any economic impact would likely take months to be felt, allowing the government to continue its military repression in the meantime.

Nor is there any guarantee that US and European sanctions would bring down the regime in the longer term. In the case of the US, existing sanctions already restrict investment in the country, so the incremental impact would be marginal. Europe, on the other hand, is Syria’s largest trading partner, but Damascus could mitigate the effect of sanctions by diverting its exports elsewhere.

An extension of sanctions to include the operations of European companies – which are responsible for a significant proportion of the country’s oil production – might have more impact. But this would take even longer to impose and, even then, investment from other countries could help ensure that the Syrian economy staggers on for years to come. Iran is reported to have already transferred at least $5bn to help shore up Damascus’ foreign currency reserves.

In the absence of a clear course of effective action for the international community, a swift resolution of the conflict looks extremely unlikely. But both sides, it seems, have gone past the point of no return.

The brutality of Al-Assad’s assault on the protesters has undermined any shred of confidence that the government might be sincere about reform. As a result, there is little reason for opponents to believe that if they stop protesting they can attain their goals by political means.

There is also a feeling among protesters that too much blood has been spilt for them to abandon their cause. “There is quite some resolve among the Syrian people,” says a Beirut-based analyst specialising in the Near East. “So many people have already lost family members. If they stop demonstrating it’s like saying those lives don’t count.”

Equally, the resilience of the opposition might give Al-Assad reason to fear that if the army withdraws then the popular protest will be overwhelming.

“The issue for the regime is that people are still protesting even though there is a risk of dying,” says Lahcen Achy, resident scholar in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s very likely that as soon as they stop shooting, the number of protesters will be huge and it might be the end of the regime. I don’t think they can stop now.”

Much will depend on whether Al-Assad can retain the backing of the army. The army’s decision to withdraw its support was a critical factor in the overturning of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes earlier this year. In Syria, it remains the bedrock of Al-Assad’s power.

“I haven’t been able to figure out how this regime can collapse if the army stays with it,” says Gregory Gause, associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont in the US. “There is no counter force in Syria to defeat them on the ground as has happened in Libya. It just doesn’t exist.”

Syria’s army key

So far, Syria’s army has remained loyal to Al-Assad, and there are strong reasons for it to continue to do so. The officer corps is dominated by Alawis, who have come to the fore under the Assad dynasty despite making up only 10 per cent of the population. As a result, the army’s leaders have both a personal loyalty to Al-Assad and a strong interest in preserving the status quo.

“The only way I see the regime collapsing is if some of the Alawi officer corps believe their interests are best served without Al-Assad,” says Gause. “I’m sceptical this would happen, because they would fear a sectarian bloodbath if the regime falls.”

There are still those who believe that international pressure can succeed in displacing Al-Assad, or at the very least force some sort of negotiated settlement. But the risks to the success of this strategy are extremely high. “There is no doubt that the legitimacy of Al-Assad is dented, perhaps irreparably so, but I think he will battle out the challenges to his leadership,” says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, reader in comparative politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

If the brutal suppression of the Syrian people continues, then the country is likely to be an international pariah for some time to come. But as long as Al-Assad can stay in power, isolation is probably something he can live with.