The State Department has announced the expulsion of Syrian Charge D'Affaires Zuhair Jabbour from the United States. He will have 72 hours to leave the country. The expulsion, which follows a string of expulsions by European states earlier today, comes in the wake of a brutal assault on the Syrian city of Houla in which 108 civilians were killed, many of them children.
Expulsion of diplomatic staff is a serious move in international diplomacy which sends a strong message to the target of the expulsion. However, since the emergence of protests in Syria in January 2011, Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown little concern for the opinion of the international community. The killings in Houla are the latest in a series of attacks by Syrian government forces on civilians in the country. Additionally, Assad enjoys the backing of Russia and China, two global and regional powers with vetoes at the UN Security Council. While the US expulsion of the Charge D'Affaires sends a strong symbolic message, it is unlikely to alter significantly the calculus of the Syrian President. It is unlikely, of its own accord, to save lives in Syria.
Rather, the expulsions (which were likely coordinated) are probably intended to put pressure on Russia and China. Arab states and citizens can see very clearly which countries have and have not expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of the attacks in Houla. The expulsions illustrate a clear divide between the US and its Western allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. Both Russia and China are already under international pressure for standing against an earlier UNSC resolution on Syria this past February. They now will be under heightened pressure to be less active in their support of President Assad. While by this point they are unlikely to call for Assad to step down, their hesitation to condemn the attacks in Houla will harm the legitimacy of their Syria policies. This increases the leverage of the United States and Western powers who seek a resolution to the situation in Syria which involves the restoration of peace and order and the ouster of President Assad.
Thus the expulsion of Syrian diplomats has less to do with immediate leverage in Syria, and more to do with the long game. The US and its allies are posturing for maximum maneuvering room in Syria, and key to this strategy is pressuring Russia and China to stand aside. Regardless of whether the endgame in Syria involves military intervention, the multilateral coalition which coordinated expulsion solidifies will be an important component of any successful strategy.