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David Ignatius: The way to bring down Assad

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: February 28, 2012

At the end of a week when more brave reporters died chronicling President Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of more than 6,000 of his countrymen, you hear more calls for sending weapons to the embattled opposition militia known as the “Free Syrian Army.”

More weapons undoubtedly will flow to the opposition, one way or another, but they're not going to bring about a democratic Syria. The moral case for arming the rebels may be strong, but it doesn't overcome the practical problem: The battlefield is Assad's area of strength, not weakness.

A better route to democratic change in Syria is the mix of economic, diplomatic and other pressure that was on the agenda for Friday's “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis. Covert supply of weapons is likely to keep the opposition from being overrun, but Turkey and the United States oppose any move toward outside military intervention or open support of rebel fighters.

The right Syria strategy should address Assad's key vulnerabilities, which are not military. The first is money, without which the regime can't survive. The second is sectarian tension, which Assad fosters because it boosts his claim to be protector of the minority Alawite and Christian communities.

Let's look at these two pressure points carefully, and think how the United States could help remove the pins on which Assad rests.

First, money: Assad's regime survives because it has enough cash to pay the army, sustain the economy despite sanctions, and grease the palms of thousands of henchmen. The U.S. recognized this vulnerability when it imposed economic sanctions last August, which were followed by similar moves by the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey.

But the Syrian cash machine continues to operate. Despite sanctions, the Central Bank's reserves still total about $10 billion, or about six months of imports, according to U.S. estimates. That's down from about $18 billion before the conflict exploded a year ago — a fall, but not yet a crippling one.

The Syrians survive partly by piggybacking on the thriving Lebanese banking system. Obama administration emissaries sharply warned the Lebanese government in November that it can't play both sides of the street; if Lebanese banks are caught providing more backdoor aid to Damascus, the consequences for the Beirut financial system could be severe, a Treasury official said.

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