7-27-2011By Robert Joyce
Human Rights Defenders
While conditions on the ground in Syria deteriorate, the Obama administration’s position seems to be growing softer. As it stands now, almost 1,500 people are confirmed dead, 12,000 arrested and thousands more forced out as refugees to Lebanon and Turkey fleeing their own government. Over a week ago the administration stated that Assad had “lost legitimacy” and there were hints that a tougher stance was to come. While the most recent release condemns the abuses, since last week, rather than take a tougher stance – call for Assad to step down – the United States has backtracked.
The United States’ stance towards the Assad regime needs to get stronger, not weaker. The crackdown has not let up and in many places has gotten worse. In the past few days alone security forces have arrested hundreds in Damascus, tanks have been deployed in Homs, where more than 50 people have been killed. Assad has also replaced the governor of Deir az-Zor, an eastern province bordering Iraq, after an estimated 500,000 people marched against the regime.
We have multiple clear recommendations for U.S. policy in Syria. The most visible of these calls for the continuation of actions like Ambassador Robert Ford’s visit to Hama. That action, in line with our recommendations for State Department guidelines on human rights defenders, needs to be repeated. Ambassador Ford should be routinely sent to sites in Syria experiencing attacks by security forces. He visited Hama, now Ford should go to Homs, and he should be seen in Damascus, and talking with owners of shops closed in protest. The Assad regime has threated Ford with expulsion should he travel at all, but here the risk is worth the penalty. By expelling the U.S. Ambassador Assad will further lose credibility. Ford’s visits, as we’ve discussed previously, lend direct U.S. support to human rights defenders and very well could serve to physically protect peaceful protestors from assault through his presence.
In addition to increasing Ambassador Ford’s trips, the United States must directly lead multilateral diplomatic action aimed at stopping the crackdown and ensuring human rights activists a safe environment for them to pursue their goals. The most obvious way to do this would be in the U.N., where the Security Council has yet to adopt any resolution critical of the Assad regime. A strong, public push led by the United States, something that has yet to happen, could spark the attention of the international community and change the direction in which national governments are currently betting on Syria. Given the continued, unjustifiable opposition such a measure faces due to the Russian and Chinese vetoes, the United States should also pursue alternatives.
Turkey and other nations in the region must be engaged in an effort to show public rejection of Assad’s actions and regional solidarity with the Syrian people. Turkey has already moved in this direction, condemning the continuing violence. Qatar, by withdrawing their ambassador, is a clear example that Arab opinion is not unanimous on the issue and shows that with a strong diplomatic push, Assad can be further isolated and the violence put to an end.
The situation in Syria is not the same as it was in Libya. The military option that presented itself in Libya has not and will not present itself in Syria.
Furthermore, given the already strained relations before the start of the crackdown, U.S. policy options are severely limited. All of that being said, the United States is still not doing all it could prudently be doing. Targeting Syria’s energy sector (in a similar manner as suggested here) with sanctions would damage the regime and limit its ability to carry out violence against its people. While sanctions already exist in Syria, the energy sector can be targeted to a much greater extent than it is now. Also, the United States could be convincing allies in Europe to adopt similar sanctions against the Assad regime. The European Union has implemented some, but the sanctions in the United States are stronger and a public diplomatic push, coupled with the existing support for human rights enforcement in Europe can make this possible.
Secretary Clinton’s shift on Syria policy, from resolve that Assad will not reform to patient hope that he will, and will peacefully, is problematic. From what we see on the ground in Syria there is no reason to believe that real reform will come out of this regime, as they have not yet stopped the violence – a basic first step to any progress. The recent announcement of the legalization of political parties is to be welcomed in spirit, but in reality the law, even if implemented, means nothing as the constitution still forbids any party other than the Baath to rule. As with the talks in Damascus a few weeks ago, Assad is buying time with this distracting move in order to continue his campaign of violent repression. The position of Assad’s regime on human rights is not softening, and the United States’ policy on Assad shouldn’t either.