Do The Threats In Syria Have Muscle?

European countries are trying to exert pressure on the regime in Syria as the Syrian government escalates its bloody crackdown on protesters. More than 400 people have been killed since protests began nearly six weeks ago. European Union countries summoned Syrian ambassadors Wednesday and warned they could impose sanctions and freeze assets if the killing continues. For more on the situation in Syria, Melissa Block speaks with Ted Kattouf. He is a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and now president and CEO of AmiEast, a non-profit dedicated to education, training and development in the Middle East.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

European countries are trying to exert pressure on the regime in Syria, as the Syrian government escalates its deadly crackdown on protesters. More than 400 people have been killed since protests began nearly six weeks ago. EU countries summoned Syrian ambassadors today and warned they could impose sanctions and freeze assets if the killing continues.

But do those threats have any muscle? And what is the future for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

We're going to put those questions now to Ted Kattouf, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2001 two 2003, and spent many years throughout the Middle East with the Foreign Service. Welcome to the program, Ambassador Kattouf.

TED KATTOUF: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And first, the threat of European sanctions stepped up financial pressure on the Syrian regime. Is that meaningful leverage in any way or just empty talk?

KATTOUF: Well, it's good that they're doing it but the leverage is very, very limited. Listen, what we have here is a regime that believes it's fighting for its very existence, and it's shown that it will do anything to keep itself in power.

BLOCK: How far, knowing what you know about President Bashar al-Assad, how far will he go to keep himself in power?

KATTOUF: Well, you know, I have to say that I was dismayed and disappointed, to say the least, to see that he's basically just the clone of his father in the regime. And he has gone down a road from which there is no exit.

Now that he has started to killings his own people, if he wants to keep himself in power, he's going to have to continue with this brutal repression because people are not going to forgive or forget.

BLOCK: Now, the opposition in Syria is predicting an outright civil war if President Assad does not agree to some kind of democratic transition. Do you think that that civil war scenario is realistic? How do you see this evolving?

KATTOUF: Well, I think those of the opposition who were saying that are ceding the moral high ground and I think it's a big mistake. The Elite units that are dominated by Alawite commanders and Alawite soldiers are the best armed groups in Syria. Blatantly armed civilians would not stand a chance.

But what I will say is while Bashar al-Assad has accused the opposition of fomenting sectarian strife, it is he who is playing that card. His troops and particularly those troops who are largely Alawite shoot predominantly Sunni demonstrators in the street. So this could really set off tremendous sectarian strife and bloodshed.

BLOCK: What are the options for the Obama administration, which has been accused of a double standard here, not intervening strongly enough, not even using as strong language as it did with Egypt when President Obama called on Mubarak to go? That hasn't happened here with us and why not? And what would it take for that to happen?

KATTOUF: Well, I think the Obama administration really is disgusted with what's going on. But at the same time, the United States does not want to start making declarations that it can't back up. The fact of the matter is, is that we have very bad relations with Syria. We can talk to the Europeans, as you indicated. I think the country we really should be talking to is Turkey.

Bashar al-Assad has forged a very, very close relationship with Prime Minister Erdogan and the Turkish government. And being the head of a moderate Islamic party, Erdogan himself must be very shocked at the methods that Bashar is using to keep himself in power.

BLOCK: And apparently, Prime Minister Erdogan has phoned Syrian President Assad to urge restraint. Do you see that message getting through? Do you think Turkey does have enough influence that it could turn things around or will things just get mitigated in some minor way?

KATTOUF: You know, they might get mitigated and I'm afraid probably nobody can turn things around. And the reason I say that is I think Bashar al-Assad recognizes that the urban masses in the two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo have not poured out into the streets. So what he's trying to do, in my opinion, is make a demonstration project, a horrible demonstration project out of those cities where the opposition has been the strongest. And he's trying to spew the message that you do not oppose this regime and get away with it; that you will pay a huge price if you try.

BLOCK: Well, Ambassador Kattouf, thank you for talking with us today.

KATTOUF: My pleasure, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Ambassador Ted Kattouf. He served as U.S. ambassador to Syria under President George W. Bush.

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