The Question Remains: What Can Be Done to Hurt Syria's Assad?

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An image taken from a YouTube video on April 19, 2012, shows smoke rising after government forces shelled a district in the Syrian city of Homs

Or else what?

The answer to that question has stymied Western and Arab leaders for months, as they try to find a way to force President Bashar Assad to halt his lethal crackdown against Syria's 14-month uprising, which has so far killed more than 9,000 people. Again on Thursday, the details of what repercussions the Syrian leader could suffer if he flouted a week-old cease-fire arrangement remained vague, after French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé met in Paris with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 12 other Foreign Ministers, including those from Turkey, Germany, Qatar and Egypt. Asked by a reporter whether they would finally consider launching military strikes against Assad's forces — as they did last year in Libya — Juppé said the priority was to implement the cease-fire negotiated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and then added, "Were that mission to meet with failure, other options would be considered, but that is not the case today."

But what other options? Clinton told the meeting that the U.S. would aid opposition groups with more communications and logistics equipment, and that she favored new U.N. sanctions to impose an arms embargo and travel restrictions against Assad's regime. Those measures, however, are likely to be rejected by Syria's major allies, Russia and China, both of which have veto powers at the U.N. Security Council and refused to join Thursday's meeting in Paris.

Clearly frustrated at the inability of Western and Arab leaders to end the Arab Spring's bloodiest conflict, both Clinton and Juppé have described Annan's cease-fire agreement as a make-or-break deal, which could trigger far tougher action against Assad if it fell apart. Clinton described the plan in Brussels on Wednesday as Assad's "last chance," while Juppé told reporters on Thursday that leaders would "look at what new measures need to be taken" if Assad violates the terms of the cease-fire.

By all accounts, that is already happening. Activists said on Thursday that one person was killed in Dara'a when Assad's forces opened fire after a visit from U.N. observers. Residents of Homs said government forces shelled several neighborhoods in the city, where hundreds were reportedly killed in a government assault last month. "They also looted, smashed up houses and even set some on fire," a resident named Ahmed told the activist organization Avaaz. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters on Thursday that both government and rebel forces had waged attacks since the cease-fire began last week. He said 300 U.N. monitors were needed to implement the plan — an intensely dangerous operation, given the continued fighting in several cities and in the suburbs of Damascus. Assad has agreed to just 250 observers. Ban said the six unarmed monitors already in Syria had been forbidden from visiting Homs. "There has been no meaningful progress on the ground," he said. "This is totally unacceptable." Under Annan's six-point plan, monitors are supposed to be allowed free access to areas. In addition, the plan calls for humanitarian organizations to be permitted to treat wounded and displaced people, foreign journalists to be given visas, political prisoners to be released and demonstrations to be permitted.

That all seems a long way off. Convinced that the cease-fire is doomed, the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Mustafa Ahmed al-Sheikh, posted a video online on Thursday, calling for a "military alliance of friendly countries" to launch strikes on government installations. That is highly unlikely to convince reluctant Western leaders, whose militaries would be crucial for a successful campaign. "The problem is that Syria is potentially another Iraq," says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who runs the Syria Comment blog. "We can kill Assad and destroy his military, that's the easy part," he told TIME on Thursday. "But then what? Then we have a failed state."

Still, many activists warn that Assad is drawing Western and Arab leaders into protracted negotiations in order to continue his crackdown. "Nobody trusts this deal. Nobody believes in this," Akil Hashim, a retired Syrian army brigadier general, told TIME in Paris, where he lives in exile. "The regime has a long history of deceiving and lying and manipulating everything."

Hashim quit the Syrian National Council last month over its refusal to call for international military intervention. He says he believes military intervention will ultimately be needed. "The only thing the regime is doing is buying time, thinking that in this time they might find a way to put an end to the revolution," he says. "It won't work. This is a no-return revolution."

Yet with Assad determined to prevail over the revolt, Western and Arab leaders have limited room to maneuver — and little clear leadership among them. In last year's Libyan revolution, Nicolas Sarkozy led the charge for international military intervention. Thirteen months later, the French President now faces leaving office far sooner than Assad, since opinion polls show him losing his re-election bid; the French presidential election's first round is on Sunday, with the concluding round taking place on May 6.

Absent bombing, the other clear "or else" threat against Assad is tougher economic sanctions. Much nonessential trade has already been halted by E.U. and U.S. sanctions, however, including the crucial suspension of Syrian bank transfers through the Belgian-based SWIFT system, which governs most international transactions. In a sign that the sanctions are biting, gold traders in Dubai told Reuters on Wednesday that Syria was trying to raise cash by selling some of its $1.36 billion worth of gold bullion. Assad is also believed to be losing about $400 million a month in revenues from oil exports, according to Reuters — almost all Syrian oil was shipped to Europe before E.U. sanctions blocked the trade last November.

In addition, tougher economic sanctions could hit poor Syrians hard, similar to the impoverishment of Iraqis under the U.N. embargo of the 1990s, during which imports were severely restricted. If similar sanctions are imposed on Syria, says Landis: "Poor people will take it across the chin, and it will not necessarily bring down the regime."