Syrians in the street laud Libyan rebels

Syrian protesters praised Libyan rebel advances in Tripoli as the Syrian regime's crackdown continued unabated, despite Western sanctions that are beginning to bite.

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Syrian protesters, buoyed by the success of the anti-Qaddafi movement in Libya, marched in the streets of several towns and cities Thursday night. Eight were killed, seven of them in the historically rebellious city of Hama, when President Bashar al-Assad's security forces opened fire on the demonstrators.

But the parallels between Libya and Syria are slim and peripheral, and President Assad still has a firm grip on his country, Reuters reports.

While the Syrian regime says it has been forced to take action against gunmen and "terrorists," it does not face an armed insurrection on the scale of Libya's and Syrian protesters have vowed to remain peaceful despite Assad's lethal crackdown. More than 2,000 Syrians have died in the conflict, including at least 400 security forces.

Masked gunmen broke the hand of a prominent Syrian political cartoonist, known throughout the Arab world for his work skewering Arab leaders, in Damascus yesterday, The New York Times reports. Ali Farzat had published a cartoon showing Assad getting a ride out of town with Muammar Qaddafi.

CNN reports that the US has accused the regime of a "targeted" attack on Mr. Farzat.

Western efforts to sway Assad have been limited to economic sanctions and diplomatic actions, such as condemning Assad and calling for him to step down from power. According to Reuters, European governments will announce an embargo on Syrian oil imports next week, which will deal a strong economic blow to the regime. About 90 percent of Syrian crude oil is exported to the European Union, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The US and several European countries have been struggling to pass a United Nations resolution imposing sanctions on Assad and 22 other Syrian officials, but China and Russia, who hold veto powers, have blocked their efforts, BBC reports. Russia said an Aug. 3 UN Security Council statement condemning the violence was an adequate response.

Russia and China also voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution earlier this week calling for an investigation into the violence, but it still passed with 33 votes.

The head of Syria's Central Bank, Adib Mayeleh, told AFP that the sanctions are beginning to have an effect in Syria and they will soon have to "tighten our belts." According to Mr. Mayaleh, the country's monetary reserves stand at $17.7 billion – down $800 million from mid-March, when protests began.

If the situation becomes too dire, however, the regime can turn to its remaining allies, he said.

"We can solve our problems with the help of China. If the Europeans withdraw, the Chinese can easily take their place and fill the void. Russia may also aid us," he said.

Western military intervention in Syria is seen as impractical, with NATO already involved in Libya and Afghanistan, and the US heavily committed in those two countries as well as Iraq.

But Joshua Landis, who blogs at Syria Comment, argues that neoconservatives in the US government see the economic sanctions as laying the groundwork for potential military intervention in Syria.

The neocons are not advocating direct U.S. military involvement in Syria today. They understand this is not politically feasible. But they are preparing the grounds for a much higher level of military commitment in the future. …

Their strategy for angling the U.S. toward making such a commitment in the future is economic sanctions. Broad economic sanctions imposed on Syria by the European Union would have major moral implications down the road. Should Syrians start to starve, as they surely would if real sanctions are imposed, the moral argument for intervention and military escalation would improve.

Should the poorest and most vulnerable Syrians begin to expire, as happened in Iraq in the 1990s, military intervention would become necessary to end the suffering and starvation. Liberals would have to support the military option in such a case. Today, most do not.

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