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EDITORIAL: Damascus doesn’t believe in Ramadan

Syrian democracy hangs by a thread - what will Obama do?

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Security forces backing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad opened the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with a furious armored assault on the oppositionist town of Hama. The Baathist regime is working overtime to stamp out pro-democracy sentiment across the country. The human rights tragedy is becoming so acute that even the United States and Russia are beginning to take notice.

The "Arab Spring" became a long, hot summer for Syrian democracy advocates. The death toll in the 4-month-old uprising is estimated at 1,400, with more than 100 killed in the past few days. Syrian dissidents might have expected the international community to have taken action by now. Mr. Assad's victims exceed the 1,000 dead Libyans that galvanized the international community to act against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

The current offensive may have pushed the international community past its breaking point. Russia, an important Syrian ally, is openly discussing some form of United Nations diplomatic intervention. Other U.N. Security Council members that initially opposed action are negotiating language for an official condemnation, though without any concrete steps such as sanctions or military strikes. The Obama administration is stepping up as well. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Syrian pro-democracy activists, and the White House reportedly is assessing other unilateral steps to aid the rebellion. The next move could be to explore how to extend recognition to an organized opposition government, as was done with the Libyan rebels. This would increase pressure on Damascus and give moral support to the severely pressed opposition.

The Obama administration also should seek ways to reach out to disaffected elements in Mr. Assad's security apparatus. Last month, former Syrian Vice President Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, in exile in Paris, said the outcome of events was in the hands of the military. As in Tunisia and Egypt, if the army withdraws support, the regime cannot be sustained. "I expect the army to disintegrate," he said. "The day will soon come when the army finds itself at a dead end with no choice but to return to the people."

That day may be growing closer. On July 29, Syrian Col. Riad Asaad posted an online video in which he announced "the formation of the independent Syrian army" with the declared mission to "protect the unarmed civilians and freedom seekers in Syria from the thugs and gangs of the sadistic dictator Bashar al-Assad and his allies Iran and [the] Hezbollah terror organization." It's unclear how many troops this dissident army can field, what weapons they have or the degree of influence Col. Asaad has with his brother officers, but there are scattered reports of other mutinies and of reprisal executions.

The Assad government does not command the support of the Syrian people and relies heavily on buttressing from Iran and Hezbollah. These groups represent other targets of opportunity for the international community because they are participating in an international act of aggression against the Syrian people in support of an illegitimate regime. So far, Mr. Obama hasn't done much. America should take a stronger stand than a toothless statement of condemnation.

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