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The day after the Syrian Army and security forces cracked down on antigovernment protesters – a move described by news outlets as a "dramatic escalation" and "harrowing new chapter" – there is growing momentum for international action against the Syrian government.
The Obama administration confirmed a Wall Street Journal report that it is considering sanctions and travel bans on Syrian government officials, while the United Nations Security Council announced it may draft a statement condemning Syria's violence and calling for restraint. The UN statement was sponsored by the United Kingdom, France, and Portugal.
On Monday, the Syrian Army moved tanks and thousands of troops into the streets of the city of Deraa while security forces stormed Damascus suburbs. There were at least 20 deaths, but the exact number is unclear because communication lines to the cities seemed to have been blocked.
Monday marked the first time the Syrian Army was used against protesters, as well as the first instance of security forces going on the offensive before protests began.
Reuters reports that a Syrian human rights organization said that at least 20 people were killed and more than 500 "pro-democracy sympathizers" were arrested in Deraa Monday. Another 500 were arrested elsewhere in the country.
Syria's protesters were dismayed by the Syrian Army's actions in particular – prior to Monday, they had hoped that it would mimic the Egyptian Army, which in January and February was more restrained towards protesters than the Egyptian police.
There are rumors of divisions emerging within the Army, with more soldiers refusing to fire on protesters and a spate of assassinations of military officials said to be sympathetic to the protesters, The Christian Science Monitor reported. In Deraa yesterday, military units clashed after some soldiers refused to fire on protesters. If the Army breaks ranks with Assad, it would severely undermine his regime's ability to survive.
Most news outlets and analysts interviewed about Monday's developments said they signaled a worrying shift in the country's unrest. The New York Times reports:
Until Monday, the Syrian government had been hewing to a mix of concessions and brute force, but its latest actions indicate that it has chosen the latter, seeking to crush a wave of dissent in virtually every province that has shaken the once uncontested rule of President Bashar al-Assad. …
“The government has decided to choose the path of violence and repression,” said a Syrian analyst in Beirut, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. “How far can they go in this repression? That is the question.”
In response to the calls for help from the citizens of Daraa and their appeal to the Armed Forces as to intervene and put an end to the operations of killings, vandalism, and horrifying by extremist terrorist groups, some Army Units entered [Monday] morning, April 25th 2011, to the City of Daraa to restore tranquility, security and normal life to the citizens, an official army source declared.
Assad's regime appears to be setting up a very clear choice for Syrians – and perhaps regional and Western players as well: It's either keep us and enjoy stability, or descend into chaos.
While the US has indicated it will take a tougher stand against Assad and his regime, The New York Times reports that US sanctions have little leverage in the country because Syria has been under some US sanctions for several years already. The hope is that criticism of Assad will be enough leverage to prompt a change in behavior.
Administration officials say that while they lack many effective economic tools, they believe Mr. Assad is sensitive to portrayals of his regime as brutal and backward. “He sees himself as a Westernized leader,” one senior administration official said, “and we think he’ll react if he believes he is being lumped in with brutal dictators.”
Recently, the White House stepped up its denunciations of the Syrian government, and of Mr. Assad himself. “Over the course of two months since protests in Syria began,” Mr. Obama said in a statement on Friday, “the United States has repeatedly encouraged President Assad and the Syrian government to implement meaningful reforms, but they refuse to respect the rights of the Syrian people or be responsive to their aspirations.”