Syrian President Bashar Assad waves at supporters during a rare public… (STR/AFP/Getty Images )
Speaking from what he apparently considers a position of strength, Syrian President Bashar Assad this week condemned the "terrorists," "traitors" and "outsiders" he said were leading the 10-month-old uprising against him and threatened to strike his enemies with an "iron fist." Preventing such an offensive by the regime, which has complied only fitfully with a demand by the Arab League that it restrain itself, will be difficult. But the Arab League and the United Nations can and must do more to minimize the violence and brutal repression in Syria, which has continued unabated since the uprising began.
According to the U.N., more than 5,000 people have been killed during the revolt against Assad, a second-generation dictator who promised the Arab League several weeks ago to withdraw forces from cities, release political prisoners and make good on promises of democratization. Some tanks have been removed from urban centers (opposition groups insist that they have been concealed nearby), but the killing has continued despite the presence in the country of more than 160 Arab League monitors. According to a U.N. official, 400 Syrians have died since the monitors' arrival.
Assad at this point is not as vulnerable as erstwhile Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi was. There seems little likelihood of the sort of NATO air action, authorized by the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League, that helped bring him down. Opposition by Russia and China has thwarted Security Council action to impose stringent sanctions on Syria, and there has been disagreement within the Arab League about the efficacy of the monitors' mission. Still, it is expected to be continued and expanded past its Jan. 19 expiration date.
It's not impossible that Assad will be dislodged, as the United States hopes. The more immediate — and more achievable — goal is to pacify the country and exert pressure on the president to abide by his commitments to the Arab League and his own people. Sanctions can play some role in that process, but it is also important for the Arab League to fortify its presence in Syria. The league has sought training assistance from the U.N. and the European Union in how to detect and document violations of the peace agreement, a sign that it believes — perhaps unrealistically — that it can restore order without deploying an armed peacekeeping force.
The one source of optimism is that Assad has proved somewhat susceptible to outside pressure, agreeing to the Arab League's intervention even as he has impugned its motives and effectiveness. Though success isn't guaranteed, the league is right to step up the pressure.