For a year now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has faced massive demonstrations calling for the end of his regime. Although his thugs have killed more than 8,000 of their own people and arrested and tortured far more, Syrians remain undeterred. Every day, they fight back, taking up arms to defend themselves and topple the tyrant. Most of the international community is on their side: Europe joined the United States and much of the Arab world in imposing stiff UN sanctions. Inside and outside the country, calls resound for a military intervention to help the rebels.
The United States must walk a fine line in Syria. On the one hand, should Assad and his regime fall, Washington and its allies would rejoice. Syria is Iran's oldest and closest Arab ally, has long opposed Israel, has backed Palestinian terrorist groups, and, at times, has aided anti-U.S. forces in Iraq. On the other hand, Washington knows that should the entire state collapse, it would usher in a horrific humanitarian crisis, and could bring along with it terrorism and even regional war.
Yet efforts to topple Assad may fracture Syria. Assad, like many a dictator before him, has made the Syrian state and society servants of the regime. The military, the police, the courts, the economy -- everything -- is structured to preserve his cadre's power. It is hard to break Assad's hold without breaking Syria.
The toughest pressure on Syria so far -- sanctions -- reveals the economic fragility of the Syrian state. As intended, the sanctions have devastated the economy and raised pressure on the regime. The currency has collapsed and capital has fled the country. Faisal al-Qudsi, the son of a former Syrian president who is now a businessman in London, claims that the country's GDP has fallen by almost 50 percent due to lost tourism and oil exports. Syria's once considerable foreign exchange reserves are almost empty. The Sunni Arab middle class, which had supported Assad, is now questioning its own allegiance.