US expels Syrian envoy: a clear message whose impact is dubious

Joining with its Western allies, the US ordered Syria's top diplomat in Washington to leave the country to protest a massacre of civilians that included executions.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
A US Secret Service police car passes by the Syrian Embassy in Washington on Tuesday, May 29. The US State Department is expelling Syrian envoy in Washington following a wave of deadly attacks on civilians in Syria over the weekend, an official said.

The United States joined other Western nations Tuesday in ordering the expulsion of Syrian ambassadors and diplomats in response to a brutal mass execution of more than 100 people in Houla, Syria, over the weekend. But analysts voiced skepticism that the move would spur change from the Syrian regime.

There was little debate about the savagery of the attack. A United Nations report found that fewer than 20 of the deaths could be attributed to tank and artillery fire. According to local witnesses and survivors who were interviewed by investigators, most of the other victims “were summarily executed” by a pro-government paramilitary group, said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The United States joined Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Australia Tuesday in announcing the coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats, declaring them “persona non grata.”

In Washington, the Syrian charge d’affaires, Zuheir Jabbour, was given 72 hours to leave the country, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

But what, precisely, will be the impact of the expulsions?

“It certainly has a certain symbolism to it,” says Aram Nerguizian, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a clear message” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Beyond that, however, “It’s more an exercise in going through the motions,” Mr. Nerguizian argues. “The Syrian ambassador has not been in the United States for quite some time, and expelling the charges d’affaires doesn’t have the same effect.” The Syrian ambassador took another post in 2011 and has never been replaced.

Indeed, though the message is “loud and clear,” there are unlikely to be additional policy steps that will encourage Mr. Assad to halt the violence, he adds. While there will be continued pressure from the United States and others, as well as calls to support opposition forces, for the time being there is little appetite for further action among cash-strapped countries with little political capital to expend on further wars or incursions.

Still, leaders throughout the Western world said that they would push for tougher sanctions against Syria following the killings in the series of farming villages that make up Houla.

Other nations add they would not engage with Syria until it agrees to abide by a UN cease-fire plan. 

State Department spokeswoman Nuland, for her, part emphasizes that the US holds the Syrian government “responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives.”

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