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The End of Syrian Engagement?

Samara Greenberg

The European Union today imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters less than one week after the United States. Both the U.S. and EU previously issued a round of sanctions aimed at Syrian officials and institutions but the crackdown has gone on unabated.

“The aim of the sanctions is to stop the violence and press Assad to agree to a process of reform, but not to force him to step down,” an EU diplomat said. This is similar to what President Obama said in his most recent policy speech on the Middle East: “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way…. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and will continue to be isolated abroad.”

A Syrian girl shouts for the end of Assad’s regime during a demonstration in Jordan on May 22.

But Assad made his decision long ago. Cementing it, the day after Obama’s speech, on Friday, Syria experienced one of its deadliest days yet with an estimated 44 people killed. And on Saturday, Syrian forces opened fire on a funeral procession, killing at least three more civilians and increasing the death toll to over 900. At this point, Syria’s ‘Spring’ is the second most deadly of all the current Arab uprisings; it is surpassed only by Libya’s whose regime has reportedly killed thousands since February.

Obama’s engagement plan with Syria is melting, but the president seems eager not to let go. A U.S. ambassador remains in Damascus and with over 900 estimated dead it took the U.S. and EU entirely too long to impose sanctions against Assad. In fact, sanctions should have been Assad’s reward for his behavior when Obama first took office, rather than the plan for diplomatic engagement. President Obama let Assad know in his speech that he will not face serious consequences for crushing the protesters. Therefore, the regime in Damascus will continue as it has.