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

At least 50 more Syrians were killed Thursday in state-ordered violence. Deaths surpass 2,000 since political protests broke out in Syria five months ago, says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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“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.”

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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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