Response to Syrian Carnage Includes a Watered-Down U.N. Resolution and Sanctions Bypassing Assad

By Patrick Goodenough | May 2, 2011 | 4:44am EDT

Syrians gather after Friday prayers during an anti-government protest in the coastal city of Banias, Syria, Friday, April 29, 2011. (AP Photo)

( – The Obama administration’s two main “tools” employed so far in responding to the deadly crackdown in Syria have been sanctions targeting three senior officials – but not President Bashar Assad – and a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution that had to be weakened in order to pass.

Those two actions on Friday were quickly followed by some of the worst violence yet seen in the seven-week crisis, with more than 60 people killed in several locations across Syria, many of them in the southern city of Dera’a, where tanks under the command of Assad’s brother, Mahir Assad, had been deployed earlier in the week.

The violence continued on Sunday, when the official SANA news agency said ten “terrorists” had been killed in the Dera’a region and 500 people had been arrested.

Human rights advocates attribute most of the deaths to the widespread use of live ammunition against unarmed protestors; Damascus blames “extremist” or “terrorist” armed groups for the killings.

On Friday, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC) held an emergency session, at the request of the U.S. and 15 other members, on the situation in Syria. It passed a resolution condemning the violence and calling for an investigation by the office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui speaks during the Human Rights Council’s special session on the violent crackdown in his country, on Friday, April 29, 2011. (U.N. Photo by Pierre Albouy)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton afterwards described the resolution as a “forceful” response by “the international community,” saying that it had “passed with an overwhelming majority by members from all regions of the globe.”

In fact, with just three fewer “yes” votes the resolution would have failed to achieve the simple majority required in the 47-member HRC.

While 26 countries voted for the measure nine, including heavyweights China and Russia, voted against it and another 11 either abstained or were marked absent. No Arab state voted for the resolution (The full voting record appears below.)

Critics also took issue with the fact that the text was diluted in two significant ways.

An earlier draft had called for an “independent, international commission of inquiry” – the same level of investigation the council has called for in the past in the cases of Libya and Israel – but the final version downgraded that to a probe by the high commissioner’s office.

Also, the early draft included a reference to the fact Syria is itself seeking a seat on the HRC in elections to be held at the U.N. General Assembly on May 20, and urged countries to take into account “recent human rights violations” in Syria when voting.

Although the U.S. has called publicly for Syria to be denied a seat on the council, that reference was dropped altogether in the final text passed on Friday.

The Geneva-based rights advocacy group U.N. Watch expressed regret at the changes made to the text, in particular “the deletion of an originally-proposed criticism of Syria’s bid for a council seat.”

U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer did welcome the passage of the resolution, however, calling the move “a welcome exception to the council norm of turning a blind eye to regimes that fire on their own civilians. It shames and pressures the Assad regime, and hopefully will help victims on the ground.”

Also on Friday, President Obama issued an executive order imposing sanctions on three senior Syrian regime officials as well as Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate and the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (The administration has accused Iran of helping its ally to quash the protests; Iran denies this.)

The sanctions entail an asset freeze and a ban on business dealings with the U.S.

The three Syrians named are the president’s brother, Mahir; the president’s cousin, Atif Najib; and his intelligence chief Ali Mamluk – but not Assad himself.

Briefing reporters, State Department director of policy planning Jake Sullivan fended off repeated questions on the issue. Although he conceded that the U.S. has no reason to believe Assad is not in control, he declined to explain why Assad was not being targeted.

Sullivan said the three named individuals “have military, political, and intelligence connections to what’s unfolded over the previous few months, and the organizations similarly have had those kinds of connections.”

They had been selected “based on our assessment that they need to be deterred and the choice needs to be sharpened for others around them.”

Reporters pointed out that the U.S. had taken a public position on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi having lost legitimacy but was not doing so in Assad’s case – even though the Syrian was cracking down on unarmed protestors, while Gaddafi was confronting an armed rebellion.

“Comparing and contrasting two situations and drawing analogies has severe limits.” Sullivan replied. “As we look at Syria, we see a government that is attacking its own people, killing its own people, engaging in gross human rights violations. And we are looking at a range of different tools for how we can respond to that.”

He identified two of those “tools” as the targeted sanctions and the HRC resolution.

The exiled Reform Party of Syria (RPS) issued a statement questioning the value of the sanctions, stating that Mahir Assad “has never done business with the United States” and has had no assets in the U.S. since the U.S. Treasury sanctioned the Commercial Bank of Syria in 2006.

President Assad, as much as his brother, “is behind the massacres being perpetrated in cold blood against unarmed protestors,” said RPS head Farid Ghadry. “Giving him another pass is but a signal for him to continue killing our people. What is not said, in our part of the world, is more important than what is said.”

“RPS regrets this timid policy in response to a humanitarian tragedy unfolding before the world's eyes in live videos and pictures. The mullahs in Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas will certainly be celebrating tonight.”

Obama has sought to engage Assad, returning an ambassador to Damascus early this year – bypassing Congress during a recess – following a six-year hiatus and sending officials including Mideast envoy George Mitchell to hold talks with Assad. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) has also visited on multiple occasions in a bid to push bilateral ties forward.

Obama’s cautious response to the worsening Syrian situation has drawn criticism from some quarters.

“Syria is an enemy of the United States.” Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration, said during a debate at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in Washington last week.

“Why would we call for the departure of Egyptian President Mubarak and not Assad? It’s disgusting.”

-- Friday’s vote on Syria at the Human Rights Council went as follows:

Yes:  Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Burkina Faso, Chile, France, Ghana, Guatemala, Hungary, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Moldova, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, United States, Uruguay, and Zambia.

No:  Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Gabon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Russia.

Abstained:  Cameroon, Djibouti, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Uganda, Ukraine.

Absent: Angola, Bahrain, Jordan, and Qatar.

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