- By Josh Rogin
Many in Congress are getting impatient with what they see as a lack of concrete action by the Obama administration to condemn and punish the Syrian government for its brutal crackdown on civilian protesters. Today, 16 senators are co-sponsoring a resolution calling on the administration to get tough on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) spearheaded the resolution (PDF) with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and John McCain (R-AZ). The foursome held a press conference on Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol to announce their new effort and demand that the Obama administration expand its activities to sanction, condemn, and pressure the Syrian government to stop killing civilians in the streets.
"I know that there are some who had hoped when these protests first broke out that Bashar al- Assad would pursue the path of reform rather than the path of violence and brutality. But that has clearly not been his choice. He is not a reformer. He is a thug and a murderer who is pursuing the Qaddafi model, and hopes to get away with it," said Lieberman.
"First and foremost, [the resolution] sends a clear message that Bashar al Assad — through his campaign of violence — has lost legitimacy, and puts the Senate squarely on record as standing with the aspirations of the Syrian people," Lieberman added.
The resolution condemns the Syrian government for its crackdown on peaceful protesters, violating international human rights agreements, withholding food, water, and basic medical services to civilians, and torturing protesters in government custody. The resolution also mentions Iran’s assistance to Syria’s repressive government and Syrian meddling in Lebanon, which has included transferring weapons to Hezbollah.
The senators want the administration to expand the targeted sanctions it imposed last month on senior Syrian government officials, sanction Assad directly, expand the effort to combat media and information censorship in Syria, engage more with the Syrian opposition, and seek condemnation of Syria at the U.N. Security Council. The senators also want President Barack Obama to speak publicly about the crisis there.
"It’s time to indict the guy who is giving the orders," said McCain. "And it’s time for the President of the United States to speak up."
Two senior Senate aides said they expect the resolution to move to the Senate floor and be passed relatively soon.
Importantly, the Senate resolution declares that the Syrian government "has lost legitimacy" and expresses the belief that the Syrian people should determine their own political future. The State Department has resisted making that statement, knowing that once the administration declares Assad is no longer "legitimate," all efforts to work with the Syrian government to encourage better behavior will become more difficult.
Pressed repeatedly on that very question at Tuesday’s briefing, State Department spokesman Mark Toner refused to say the Syrian government was no longer legitimate.
"We believe that he needs to take concrete steps to cease violence against innocent protesters and civilians, and he needs to address their legitimate aspirations," he said.
But Syria’s main advocate in the Senate, SFRC Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), told The Cable on Tuesday that Assad’s chance to be a reformer had passed.
"I said we have to put him to the test. I’ve always said it’s a series of tests," Kerry said. "The chance was lost and that’s the end of it."
UPDATE: Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is now also a co-sponsor of the resolution, bringing the total number of co-sponsors to 17.