Richard Cohen / Politics

The Luxury We Don't Have in Syria

About a month ago the European Union, showing it will not be trifled with, barred Bashar al-Assad's wife, Asma, and other women in his immediate family from shopping for luxury goods in Europe. For some reason, going cold turkey on Dior, Armani and Prada failed to bring down the Assad regime or to end its vicious attacks on the civilian population. Now the Europeans, presumably with the staunch support of the Obama administration, have imposed an across-the-board ban on the sale of luxury goods to Syria -- and yet, somehow, the killing continues.

The imposition of the luxury goods ban was cited in a New York Times editorial with all the solemnity usually reserved for naval blockades -- as good an example of any of how we have gone to dreamland. In the dream, a vicious dictator, fighting for his own and his family's lives, will somehow come to the bargaining table because he is down to his last Montblanc pen. Of course, more practical measures and boycotts have also been adopted, but it is always good to remember that severe boycotts were imposed on Saddam Hussein's regime for about 12 years -- and it still took an invasion to bring him down. There is a lesson here.

With a kind of freeze-frame inevitability, the Syrian crisis unfolds in a predictable fashion. A year ago came the first rumblings of insurrection - a stirring in Daraa -- and then demonstrations in the capital, Damascus, and as expected, the violent response by the security forces. This produced a cascade of wishful thinking, with the U.S. and other Western governments saying Assad would be ousted in no time and the crisis would all go away.

It is all still with us.

An estimated 10,000 people are dead, the bulk of them civilians. Countless more have fled the country, seeking asylum or merely a gulp of water, in Jordan or Turkey. Assad, who has no legitimate claim to power, has turned his army and its guns against his people. He has shelled housing blocks and makeshift hospitals. Snipers have killed the merely curious. Journalists have been targeted and, in effect, murdered.

The standard arms embargo is being proposed. But it will have little effect. Already, the Russians are suspected of using diplomatic flights to bring in arms, and Iran, Syria's real patron, does pretty much what they want. And what it wants most of all is for the Assad regime to prevail.

The United Nations has sent in observers, as many as 12 of them, with possibly 288 more on the way. So far, the Assad regime has played a cat-and-mouse game with them -- withdrawing tanks and troops when the observers arrive, bringing them back when they leave. Whatever the case, Assad will not allow the U.N. to stand between him and his enemies.

Syria replays Bosnia. Step by step this charade unfolds in a predictable fashion. We can see the outcome. Assad will agree to almost anything but do almost nothing. He cannot turn back. Too much blood has been spilled. Too many oaths of vengeance have been taken. The more the fighting goes on, the more radicalized both sides get. Assad's father killed perhaps 20,000 in the city of Hama. It is still a family record; it may turn out to be only a personal best.

Just as the clumsy and ineffective measures that allowed things to get out of hand in Bosnia are being repeated, so should the solution -- air power. This is part of the prescription advocated by John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, senators all. They propose bombing Syrian command and control facilities as well as supplying the opposition with weapons. (So far, I've been told, not even the promised communications equipment has shown up in any appreciable number.) They also recommend establishing safe areas within Syria so that the insurgents can be properly trained and given medical help, although putting them over the Jordanian and Turkish borders might be more feasible.

It's impossible to know what would follow the Assad regime. An Islamic republic? Sectarian mayhem? But one way to avoid a disastrous outcome is for the United States to help organize the opposition and show that America is on the side of the protesters. Washington, though, has been on the sidelines, and the Europeans lack the military to do what needs to be done. In the meantime, both the Syrian people and the Assad clan will suffer -- the former deprived of life and liberty and the latter of this season's latest shoes.

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Richard Cohen's e-mail address is cohenr@washpost.com

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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