The Assad Regime’s Continuing Mass Murder of Syrians: Policy Options for U.S. Response

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A Joint Bulletin of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)

Long a sponsor of terrorism beyond its borders, the Syrian government is now waging an internal war against its own people.  The United Nations reports that President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have killed over 3,000 civilians and detained 30,000 more since the country’s pro-democracy protests began in March 2011.
 
While many governments have individually condemned the Assad regime, it is regrettable that the international community has not yet been able to muster a collective response.  In early October 2011, Russia and China blocked a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would have merely censured the Syrian government and demanded an end to the lethal crackdown on protestors.  Gridlock at the United Nations, however, should come as no surprise.  Only a few months earlier, Russian and Chinese diplomats prevented the Security Council from even considering a resolution that would have criticized the Assad regime for secretly building a nuclear reactor capable of producing fissile material and called on it to open its controversial nuclear program to international inspectors.
 
Given that the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to act anytime soon, what options does the United States have for responding, individually or in concert with others, to the Assad regime’s provocations?  In late August 2011, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution identified some potential measures, including a maritime operation to enforce stronger sanctions, a Kosovo-style airstrike campaign, or a military invasion to carry out regime change.  The United States should not only keep those options on the table, but also explore the following intermediate steps.

Option:  Impose Crippling Sanctions on the Syrian Government.
 
President Obama and Congress should work together to quickly expand the scope of U.S. sanctions on the Syrian government for its mass murder of civilians and other human rights abuses.  Since the Assad regime’s violent crackdown on protestors began in March 2011, the Obama administration has responded slowly, imposing three incremental rounds of Executive Branch sanctions on Syria:

  • Executive Order 13572, signed by President Obama on April 29, 2011, targets the property and interests not only of several high-ranking Syrian officials and entities, but also of the Qods Forces, a special unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that is believed to be strongly aiding Syria’s crackdown on protestors.
  • Executive Order 13573, signed by the President on May 18, 2011, expands the list of Syrian officials sanctioned by the United States for human rights abuses to include Bashar al-Assad himself, as well as Syria’s vice president, prime minister, defense and interior ministers, and head of military intelligence.
  • Executive Order 13582, signed by President Obama on August 17, 2011, freezes all Syrian assets under U.S. jurisdiction, bars U.S. citizens and companies from participating directly or indirectly in a broad range of transactions with Syrian entities, and blacklists a new set of Syrian individuals and companies.

That said, there is much more that the United States can do to establish stronger sanctions capable of truly crippling the Syrian government.  Indeed, the Assad regime is already economically vulnerable, and could be impacted quickly—perhaps decisively—by more comprehensive sanctions.  To begin with, it appears that Damascus has poor access to hard currency, is depleting its dollar reserves in attempts to maintain its currency and pay its security forces, and faces the prospect of hyperinflation especially in the absence of continuing financial aid from Iran. 
 
The President and Congress should therefore work to quickly pass legislation for harsher U.S. sanctions on Syria, including extraterritorial sanctions aimed at convincing European Union member states and other countries to join the United States in targeting Syria’s energy industry, financial and banking system, and other sectors that are funding the Assad regime.  In particular:

  • The Syria Sanctions Act of 2011 (S. 1472)—originally introduced by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Joe Lieberman (ID-CT), and Mark Kirk (R-IL)—would penalize, for the first time, foreign entities that aid, contribute to, or invest in Syria’s energy sector.  Given that American companies are now prohibited from conducting business in Syria, the Syria Sanctions Act would impose extraterritorial sanctions to persuade other countries to establish comparable prohibitions by preventing foreign entities that hold financial stakes in Syria's power industry, purchase Syrian petroleum, or export gasoline to Syria, from having access to U.S. government contracts and financial institutions.
  • The Syria Freedom Support Act (H.R.2106)—originally introduced by Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Eliot Engel (D-NY)—seeks to strengthen U.S. sanctions on Syria, and targets the country’s exports, financial transactions, banking, and procurement activities.  In particular, the bill contains measures to impede the development of Syria's petroleum resources, and the development and export of its refined petroleum products.  The bill also imposes wide-ranging sanctions related to Syria’s sponsorship of international terrorism, as well as its weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.

As Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz, both of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), wrote in the Washington Post:  “Obama wouldn’t necessarily have to lead from the front” in implementing more comprehensive sanctions on Syria.  They explain:

“The European Union is slowly but surely developing tougher sanctions.  The E.U., which purchases most of Syria’s oil, just passed an embargo, effective Nov. 15, on importation of Syrian crude.  Implementing further comprehensive measures against Syria’s energy sector and central bank and Iranian commercial entities heavily invested in Syria may require the presidential bully pulpit and some arm-twisting of European allies and the Turks.  But Bashar al-Assad’s bloody oppression gives Washington the high ground.  What seemed impossible five months ago is becoming practicable.”

In addition, Washington should work with international partners to multilateralize sanctions against Syria’s controversial nuclear and missile programs.  As a first step, the Obama administration should push E.U. Member States to join the United States in targeting Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC).  According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the SSRC “controls Syria’s missile production facilities and oversees Syria’s facilities to develop unconventional weapons and their delivery systems.”  The Bush administration sanctioned the SSRC under the Executive Order 13382 of June 28, 2005.

Option:  Provide Assistance to Syrian Opposition Groups. 
 
U.S. policymakers should explore options for direct assistance to opposition groups in Syria.  At one end of the assistance spectrum, the United States and its partners could provide financial aid to striking workers and encryption-enabled portable communications equipment for the protest movement.  As Gerecht and Dubowitz wrote in the Washington Post, Syrian opposition groups could greatly benefit from a cross-border wireless Internet zone that stretches to the Syrian city of Aleppo, a commercial center roughly 20 miles from Turkey.
 
At the other end of the assistance spectrum, the United States could consider providing arms-related assistance—or encouraging the provision of arms-related assistance by like-minded countries in the region—that would enable members of the Syrian opposition to better defend themselves against the Assad regime’s relentless attacks.  Partial precedents for such measures may be found in U.S. efforts to help provide self-defense arms to the Bosnian Muslims in the face of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian military forces in the 1990s and, more recently, to Libyan opposition in the face of aggression by the Qaddafi regime.
 
If the Syrian protestors want to arm themselves against the regime's depredations, it is morally tenuous for the Obama administration to urge that the Syrian opposition remain non-violent.  Concerns about Syria’s internecine strife are legitimate, but they should not lead us to disparage those who are trying to protect themselves and their families from the Assad regime’s murderous security forces—especially if no one in the international community will come to their defense.   Official American rhetoric on this issue ought to change.

Option:  Impose No-Fly / No-Go Zones in Syria.
 
The United States should also considerimposing no-fly or no-go zone to protect Syria’s population from further attacks by the Assad regime’s security forces.  In recent months, opposition groups within Syria have begun calling for an international intervention on humanitarian grounds.
 
Efforts to impose no-fly or no-go zones in Syria, of course, will benefit from strong international support.  A no-fly zone will likely require air support from both NATO and Arab allies.  And as Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution wrote, under a no-go zone—perhaps in Syrian territory adjacent to its borders with Jordan or Turkey—“[o]ne or two major parts of Syria might be protected in this way, at least reasonably well, by a combination of outside airpower and perhaps a limited number of boots on the ground.”
 
Leading lawmakers are now discussing the possibility of no-fly and no-go zones in Syria.  For example, Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) first suggested looking at military options to protect Syrian civilians in March 2011, and returned to the idea of no-fly and no-go zones in October 2011.  And during an October 23, 2011, speech before a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) discussed the possibility U.S. military involvement in Syria:  “Now that military operations in Libya are ending, there will be renewed focus on what practical military operations might be considered to protect civilian lives in Syria….  The Assad regime should not consider that it can get away with mass murder.  [Libyan dictator Muammar] Gadhafi made that mistake and it cost him everything.”

Conclusion.
 
Despite gridlock in the U.N. Security Council, the United States nonetheless has options responding, individually and in concert with others, to the Assad regime’s continuing assault on the Syrian people.  After months of relentless violence, the people of Syria are now increasingly demanding decisive international action to prevent further bloodshed.  It’s time for policymakers and lawmakers in the United States to act.

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