The United States has slapped fresh sanctions on Syria for its continued stifling of public dissent. But pressure from Washington alone is unlikely to rattle the regime in Damascus.
The US has little leverage in Syria
The Obama administration reacted to Syria's increasingly brutal crackdown on demonstrators by leveling a new round of sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The fresh measures are aimed specifically at the country's leadership. Any financial assets of President Assad, his vice president as well as the regime's top political and security brass in the US are to be frozen and US citizens are prohibited from conducting business with Syria's ruling elite.
But it appears highly unlikely that the regime - which has been on Washington's list of state sponsors of terror for decades - and its leaders possess any large financial holdings in the US. The move therefore is largely symbolic and highlights the difficulties the Obama administration faces in dealing with Syria as the regime continues to clamp down hard on pro-democracy protests.
The one thing that is clear so far in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring in Damascus, is that the US has shelved the engagement policy it started with Syria two years ago. That approach - focused almost exclusively on Syria's behavior as a key regional player - has simply been swept away by the sea change of the Arab democracy movements.
"The goalposts change," Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told Deutsche Welle. Instead of looking at autocratic figures like Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi or Bashar al-Assad as permanent fixtures that had to be accepted as a necessary evil in the Middle East, the scope has widened dramatically.
"And we see that we have to push for democracy and accountability now and not simply a nicer façade for pragmatic authoritarianism," adds Lustick.
But compared to Egypt and Libya, the Syrian regime is a far tougher nut to crack, argue experts.
The US possesses little direct leverage to influence events in Syria. With the latest round of sanctions, Washington has pretty much played its cards in terms of coercive fiscal and economic measures against Damascus. And unlike with Egypt and many other countries in the region the US also doesn't have any military or political ties with Syria.
On the contrary, Washington in the past, with the exception of the engagement policy of the last two years, has been focused on isolating the regime. In other words: The US has very few sticks left to threaten the Assad regime.
No military solution
What's more, the military option, unlike in Libya, is off the table in Syria. Nobody from the opposition in Syria and even outside are calling for it, says Mona Yacoubian, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. In addition, adds Lustick, the Syrian military and security apparatus is far more potent and more closely linked to the regime than is the case in Libya.
The UN and the Arab League have so far pulled their punches on Syria
"I really don't think President Obama can do much more than what he is doing at the moment," is how Syria expert Thomas Pierret, currently a visiting fellow at Berlin-based Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), a research institute focused on the Middle East, sums up the situation.
The lack of options, according to the experts, also explains Barack Obama's reticence on Syria so far. While Hillary Clinton and other US officials have publicly criticized the regime and urged consequences, the president himself compared to statements on Libya and Egypt before has kept mostly mum on Damascus.
In addition, says Pierret, the protests in Syria haven't reached the level in Egypt, where, when millions took to the streets in Cairo, it became clear very quickly that Mubarak's time was up.
"You just don't throw around presidential statements that might be misinterpreted or that might go a little too far or not far enough at this particular time," argues Lustick.
"If Obama were to speak in public about Syria it would be a kind of commitment for change and it would maybe not be very wise at this stage," says Pierret.
Since Syria is closely connected to many other hot spots in the region that are vital to the US, i.e. Iraq, Lebanon and Israel, nobody in the administration wants Damascus to descend into total chaos.
Lack of global momentum
Instead, argue the analysts, it would be more prudent for the Obama administration to come out more strongly against Assad when it perceives a feasible route to effect change in Syria.
To achieve that, Washington must build global momentum against the regime's oppression that goes beyond Europe and the US.
The Syrian regime may be able to quell the uprising
"I think the key is going to be coordinated, multilateral economic pressure on Syria," notes Yacoubian and adds that with Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, two key regional players are still sitting on the fence.
The Arab League, despite a recent public appeal by Arab civil society groups, also has not taken a clear position against the violence in Syria.
But, suggest the experts, only through economic and political pressure by a broad international coalition can change take place in Syria. And unlike Tehran, they add, Damascus, which doesn't have vast natural resources, cannot afford to live as an international pariah.
The question is whether Syria's fledgling opposition won't be crushed before these long-term measures bite?
"Unfortunately, I think that is a distinct possibility," says Yacoubian.
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge