With the crisis in Syria escalating, CNN reports that the U.S. State Department has closed its embassy there, pulling out all remaining staff due to security concerns. With the regime’s systematic attacks growing more violent and the potential for sectarian civil war to unfold, the United States should help ease the suffering of the Syrian people and speed the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime by increasing sanctions, providing humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees, and providing diplomatic and economic support—all while holding back from direct military intervention.
The decision to close the embassy comes amid anti-government protests that are now 11 months old—and a violent government crackdown on the uprising that today has left more than 5,000 people dead. Just two days ago, the United Nations Security Council rejected a resolution condemning Syria’s violent repression of anti-government protesters, with Russia and China vetoing the measure. And today, President Obama weighed in, saying that it is important to resolve the conflict without military intervention.
Tragically, the Assad regime has adamantly rejected long-overdue political reforms or political compromise with the opposition. Its circumstances, though, are unlike those in Libya. While Muammar al-Qadhafi was isolated from the international community, Assad has friends in Russia. And whereas the Libyan rebel forces were disjointed, those in Syria are even more disorganized. But Assad lacks financial resources, making him more vulnerable to sanctions—and sanctions should be a central tool in pressuring the Assad regime to step down.
Yet to date, the Obama Administration has been behind the curve on confronting Syria’s threat. The President initially sought to engage Assad and sought to reverse the Bush Administration’s decision to withdraw the U.S. ambassador from Damascus in 2005 after the Rafik Hariri assassination. Remarkably, the Obama White House has held back criticism, even among the violence that the Syrian government has unleashed on the once-peaceful protesters. Only in August did the President call for Assad to step down after three rounds of escalating sanctions.
The Obama Administration’s soft-pedaling of Syria comes even though the regime is a state sponsor of terror, houses political prisoners, ordered an attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, threatened the U.S. ambassador, and continues the killing of its people even today. Heritage’s James Phillips recommends actions for the Obama Administration:
- To help expedite the fall of the regime, the United States should work with allies, especially Turkey, to tighten sanctions against Syria. The EU, which accounts for about 90 percent of Syrian oil exports, banned imports of Syrian oil in November. Escalating sanctions could exacerbate Syria’s economic situation and peel away support for the regime by encouraging the defection of the urban Sunni merchant class, which has been an important pillar of Assad’s support.
- Washington should also examine the opposition forces and consider whether they could be partners committed to building a free Syria. If so, the United States should expand its economic, diplomatic, and political support for the opposition.
President Obama is correct that military intervention is not the solution for Syria, but it is wrong to withhold criticism and only lightly impose sanctions on a regime that is brutally murdering its people. The U.S. should take action to help bring about Assad’s downfall and bring to an end the dictator’s brutal attacks on his people.