Pressure on Obama to get tougher on Syria coming from all sides

Pressure on Obama to get tougher on Syria coming from all sides

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, lawmakers and activists are stepping up their efforts to convince the White House to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.

The U.N. Security Council issued a presidential statement on Wednesday afternoon condemning the violence in Syria and calling for those responsible for human rights violation to be held accountable. The statement did not call for an international investigation into the crimes, as some members had wanted, and does not carry the force of a Security Council resolution, which was ultimately unattainable.

"It is clear that President al-Assad is not committed to pursuing the reforms that would meet these goals. As such, the United States and the international community must hold the regime accountable, and pressure them to change course," 68 U.S. senators wrote in a new letter to President Barack Obama today. "Implementing additional sanctions would show the Syrian people that we stand with them in their struggle for human rights and a more representative government, while also making it clear to the Syrian regime that it will pay an increasing cost for its outrageous repression."

The senators are calling on the administration to prohibit U.S. businesses from operating or investing in Syria, impose stringent sanctions on Syria’s banking sector, restrict the travel of Syrian diplomats within the United States, and block property transactions in which the Syrian government has an interest. In addition, the senators are calling on Obama to engage with European allies on ending purchases of Syrian oil, and cutting off investments in Syria’s oil and gas sectors.

The letter comes only one day after Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced a bill that would authorize Obama to close off the U.S. financial system, markets, and federal contracts to companies that invest in Syria’s energy sector, purchase the country’s oil, and sell gasoline to Syria.

Obama’s Syria team, which is centered at the State Department, has been increasing its rhetoric and activity against the Assad regime, having now made the internal calculation that Assad will have to leave sooner or later. "We’ve definitely been very clear that we don’t see Assad in Syria’s future," a senior administration official told Foreign Policy this week.

Another administration official who does not work directly on sanctions predicted that new designations of Syrian officials for targeted sanctions could be coming in "days, not weeks." Still that movement is not enough for the administration’s critics.

"I don’t understand their Syria policy," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a SFRC member who is calling for a tougher administration stance. "I wish there was a little more clarity on it, I’m sorry there isn’t."

Other observers beg to differ. "The administration has been criticized as muddled, I think this is no longer the case," said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Now the idea has crystallized inside the administration that the Assad regime is on its way out and all options are on the table, short of military action."

At his confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said that, additional U.S. unilateral sanctions "probably aren’t going to have that big of an impact," because "the big companies working in the energy sector in Syria are from Europe or Syria’s neighbors."

But the administration isn’t opposed to the new congressional legislation, Tabler said. Ford was simply acknowledging the fact that the United States doesn’t have much leverage in Syria and therefore must work through other countries to increase pressure on Assad.

"[T]he point that Ford was trying to make was that in order to get the change on the ground, you have to get the European countries to join in," Tabler said. "The question is whether this congressional action will lead to more European action or not."

"It’s foreign companies, in particular those based in the EU, that the U.S. needs to persuade to pull out of Syria. Ford is absolutely right about that," said a senior Senate aide who works on Syria. "In fact, that’s precisely why the congressional sanctions introduced yesterday don’t target U.S. companies. They target the foreign energy companies that are doing business with Syria."

Regardless, the administration still has yet to issue an outright call for Assad to step down now, as it did with Egypt’s Mubarak and Libya’s Qaddafi. That’s one of the main requests of Syrian opposition activists, several of whom met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the State Department on Tuesday. They want Obama to be more public in his support of the Syrian opposition.

"The president had remarks on Egypt and Libya, but no speech on Syria," said Radwan Ziadeh, a George Washington University professor who was part of the group. "Also we need the United States to lead international action on Syria at the United Nations Security Council level."

Ziadeh said that Clinton promised to throw her support behind the condemnation of Syria just passed at the United Nations, but did not pledge that the administration would do the other things the activists are requesting, including leading a drive for Syrian officials to be charged with war crimes at the International Criminal Court.

The one hour meeting was also attended by Syria activists Marah Bukai and Mohammad Alabdalla, as well as Ford, Special Advisor Fred Hof, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, and a deputy of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner.

The activists had been requesting a meeting with Clinton for over a month, Ziadeh said. They have seen greater senior administration attention on Syria in recent days, which they view as positive, but are waiting for that attention to be translated into a more bold and public stance, he noted.

"She said that they want a transition in Syria to start as soon as possible," said Ziadeh. "It’s important to see how much Secretary Clinton is personally involved. But now we need to push the White House to have a speech by President Obama very soon."