Tougher Steps Against Syria Expected in ‘Coming Hours and Days’

By Patrick Goodenough | May 18, 2011 | 4:28 AM EDT

Carrying their belongings, Syrians fleeing from the violent government crackdown illegally cross the border into Lebanon on Monday May 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

(Update: The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday announced sanctions – an asset freeze and a ban on business dealings with U.S. citizens or companies – against senior Syrian officials including, for the first time, President Bashar Assad. Acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen said the actions “send an unequivocal message to President Assad, the Syrian leadership and regime insiders that they will be held accountable for the ongoing violence and repression in Syria.”)

( – In the clearest signal yet that the Obama administration’s attempt to engage Bashar Assad has not worked, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday singled out the Syrian president personally in deploring the continuing crackdown on anti-government protests.

Speaking at the State Department alongside European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Clinton moved from criticism of the regime to Assad himself.

“President Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed brutal crackdown shows his true intentions,” she stated.

Just days ago, Clinton told an Italian television interviewer that a “path forward” for Syria to promote a reform agenda was still possible. Human rights groups estimate that up to 1,000 people have been killed since the government clamped down on the revolt nine weeks ago.

Both Clinton and Ashton indicated that stronger measures by the U.S. and E.U. were imminent. Steps called for by some members of Congress and others include withdrawing the U.S. ambassador, announcing sanctions against Assad personally, and declaring that his rule is illegitimate and should end.

The U.S. and E.U. have imposed sanctions against senior regime officials, but not Assad himself.  Their attempts to get the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violent clampdown ran into opposition from permanent members China and Russia, backed by the council’s sole Arab member, Lebanon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton speak in the Treaty Room at the State Department on Tuesday, May 17, 2011. (Screenshot: State Department video)

“Today, we discussed additional steps that we can take to increase pressure and further isolate the Assad regime,” Clinton said, without elaborating.

“We’re all very aware that the situation is so grave that it’s now in a situation where we need to consider all of the options,” said Ashton. “And I think there will be a number of moves in the coming hours and days that you will see.”

Like Clinton, she did not expand, but did say “what we’ve been doing is looking at what sanctions we can take, what political pressure we can put on, in what is an increasingly alarming situation, and to try and offer support to the people in whatever way we can.”

Ashton signaled that the steps would be taken in concert, saying that it “makes a big difference if we’re able to put that pressure on together.”

State Dep’t: 'Engagement' was not a mistake

The Assad regime was one of those hostile to the U.S. that then Sen. Barack Obama, while campaigning for the presidency, said he would seek to engage.

“The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them – which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this [Bush] administration – is ridiculous,” he said during a Democratic primary debate in July 2007.

In Syria’s case, engagement advocates advised that Assad could be lured away from his alliance with Iran and his support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian terror groups, and could be persuaded to cooperate in preventing anti-U.S. militants from crossing from Syria into Iraq. The long-elusive prize of a Syria-Israel peace deal also featured prominently in their arguments.

Prodded by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry and others, Obama six months after taking office sent Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell to Damascus for talks with Assad.

In February 2010 he nominated Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria. The post had been vacant since President Bush withdrew the U.S. envoy after the Feb. 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a bombing in which Syria was implicated.

Further outreach took place immediately after the Ford nomination, with undersecretary for political affairs William Burns sent for more talks in Damascus.

Just days later, Assad – in an apparent show of defiance – met publicly with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reiterated the strength of their alliance. They also met with Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, another Shi’ite deeply hostile to the U.S.

The engagement effort continued, however, and after Ford’s nomination ran into opposition in the Senate, Obama appointed him as ambassador during a congressional recess last December.

Ford had only been at his new post for weeks before the anti-Assad protests began. As the crackdown has worsened, calls for Obama to recall Ford have escalated.

Asked Tuesday whether the engagement policy had been a mistake, State Department spokesman Mark Toner replied, “not at all.”

“We believed it was always important, and we still believe it’s important, that we have a senior U.S. government official on the ground who can speak on behalf of the U.S. government, who can convey our concerns, and speak, as I said, as an official U.S. voice in Damascus.”

Toner said the administration had not been “under any illusions that this would be an easy dialogue. But we felt it was important that, again, that there be a dialogue so that we can, at the very least, express ourselves candidly.”

Toner would not say what form the next steps against Syria could take.

“I’m just going to say that we’re looking at options and ways to apply pressure on Assad,” he said. “We said all along we’re going to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.”

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have urged Obama to extend sanctions to cover the Syrian leader personally, and to declare that Assad “has lost the legitimacy to lead, and that it is time for him and his regime to go.”

Obama will deliver a major speech at the State Department on Thursday, focusing on developments in the Arab world and U.S. policy in the region.

(See a timeline of U.S. engagement with Syria since 2005.)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow