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Tough words, tighter sanctions for Syria, but no end to state-led violence

International pressure on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ratcheted up Thursday, a day after the United Nations Security Council condemned the regime for violent repression of opposition demonstrations.

But as Russia hardened its stance toward President Assad and as the European Union approved new sanctions targeting Syrian officials, the Assad regime answered by intensifying its assault in the opposition center of Hama, sending in more tanks and snipers.

At least 50 more Syrians were killed Thursday in state-ordered violence. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that the regime is responsible for more than 2,000 deaths during five months of protests, and she repeated a previous assertion that Mr. Assad has lost all legitimacy.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose country was slow to accept the idea of Security Council action on Syria, said Thursday that Assad faces a “sad fate” if he does not quickly implement political reforms and open up to the opposition.

Mr. Medvedev said the Russian position on Syria is evolving as events unfold inside the country, piquing the interest of Western capitals that have sought Russian support for months for international action against Assad.

The European Union (EU) approved new sanctions but stopped short of targeting Syria’s banks and small but financially crucial oil and gas industry.

Yet hitting Syria’s oil and gas income may be one of two crucial steps for influencing the Assad regime and its actions, some Syria experts say. The other will be getting a mostly quiet Arab community to confront Assad over his brutal repression.

“The Assad regime is quite reliant on oil exports,” says Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Why not an embargo on Syrian oil exports?” Oil and gas make up about one-third of Syria’s export revenues.

Four European countries – France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands — purchase the bulk of Syria’s oil exports, notes Mr. Abrams. The EU’s decision to put off for now any sanctions on oil and gas was “a lost opportunity,” he adds.

Knowing how important the oil revenues are to Assad, the Europeans “may have been afraid of going off a cliff” in the sense of precipitating Assad’s downfall, he says.

Another source of untapped pressure on Assad would be Syria’s Arab neighbors. In this area, the United States could be effective in rallying support for measures against Assad, say some diplomatic analysts.

“What’s been striking is the absence of a regional response from the other Arab states,” says Robert Danin, a former National Security Council Middle East specialist who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “”Here is where [the US] could play a galvanizing role.”

Earlier this week President Obama said more US sanctions against Syria would be forthcoming, and three US senators proposed legislation to levy new sanctions on Syria similar to those the United States has imposed on Iran.

“The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad,” Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R) of Illinois said in a statement announcing the new sanctions bill. “The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those leveled against the Iranian regime.”

The other senators behind the bill are Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut. Senator Lieberman noted in proposing the legislation that it would target Syria’s oil revenues by extending the impact of US sanctions to foreign companies.

The CFR’s Abrams, a former senior democracy and Middle East director in the George W. Bush White House, says the US should also be working to convince Syria’s minority Alawite community, from which Assad hails, that their best interests lie in cutting ties to Assad and uniting with the country’s pro-democracy factions.

“Not every Alawite is an Assad supporter,” says Abrams. The US should tell the Alawite community that the Assad regime is a “Mafia crew” that has worked only in its own interests. The Alawites are a branch of Shiite Islam.

The longer violence lasts in Syria the better the chances of a civil conflict, but Abrams says acting now to pull support from the regime can help avoid that outcome. Similarly, Mr. Danin says sanctions targeting individuals in the Assad regime can help to pry away other officials and high military officers from the regime.

“Now is the time to separate the Alawite community from the Assad regime,” Abrams says.

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