Photo: Thomas Del Brase/Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

Squeeze Syria’s Thug-in-Chief Enough to Make It Hurt: View

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June 1 (Bloomberg) -- In his posed photograph, the boy is a tenderfoot teenager -- round-faced, bangs askew, biting his lower lip. In the final video image of 13-year-old Hamzah al-Khateeb, released on YouTube, his head is misshapen, his body marred with cuts, bullet wounds, burns and a hole where his penis ought to be.

This is the latest handiwork of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Young Hamzah was detained by security forces when he attended an opposition rally with his father on April 29 in their hometown of al-Jiza. A month later, his tortured corpse was returned to his family.

Hamzah’s case has increased the heat and scope of protests against the regime in Syria. In a hopeful scenario, outrage over his murder would mark a turning point in the popular effort to end the brutal Assad dynasty, which so far has killed 1,000 civilians in the Syrian Spring, according to Human Rights groups. Sadly, the regime is showing resilience. The balance in such matters is determined by the strength of those willing to terrorize, torture and kill to stay in power versus the strength of those prepared to be terrorized, tortured and killed to overthrow those in power.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak fell because the army wouldn’t fire on protesting citizens. Assad, however, like his father, Hafez al-Assad, before him, can count on his forces. He assures the loyalty of the military-intelligence command by filling it with fellow Alawites, a religious sect that makes up only 7 percent of Syria’s population. The Alawites are convinced that if they lose control of the government, Syria’s Sunni majority will seek reprisals for 50 years of Alawite hegemony. Thus, for now, the power elite are willing to savage civilians to maintain their position, while an insufficient number of citizens are prepared to share the fate of Hamzah al-Khateeb.

Libya Template

It may be tempting to think that the U.S. and its allies should do in Syria what they are doing in Libya -- using NATO air strikes, under a United Nations mandate, to limit the regime’s ability to attack civilians. But the Arab League asked for action in Libya, and it is divided on Syria. And the factors that have supported success in the air operation in Libya -- weak anti-aircraft defenses and rebel forces prepared to protect civilians -- don’t apply in Syria.

The Obama administration should take care not to raise expectations about change in Syria that it cannot fulfill. The president came close to doing just that when he said last month that Assad had a choice: to either lead a transition to democracy or "get out of the way."

Economic Pressure

What the U.S. and its allies can do is put more economic pressure on the Syrian regime. Already, the U.S. and European Union have frozen local assets of Assad and his top associates. China and Russia are unlikely to agree to broader UN sanctions, so the U.S. should seek alternatives. One would be working with the EU and Turkey to freeze the assets of Syria’s state-owned banks, which finance the Syrian oil industry and key figures in the pro-Assad business elite. The U.S. and EU should also bar flights to and from Syria, and widen visa bans on Syrian officials, especially military officers and their families.

These measures aren’t likely to bring down Assad’s house. But they would sting. Having established themselves as miscreants, the regime’s agents should now be denied the privileges of international life. The sanctions would also let the Syrian opposition know the democratic world is behind them.

Should the Syrian Spring fizzle, the Assad regime would press for a return to normalcy, and many countries would be apt to go along. But the sanctions must remain, at least until there has been accountability for the atrocities being committed now. Since he succeeded his father in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has toyed with projecting the image of reluctant ruler and reformer. As Hamza al-Khateeb’s family knows perfectly, he is but one thing: an irredeemable thug.