Amidst growing calls in Congress for stronger measures to effect "regime change" in Syria, the administration of President Barack Obama is escalating its rhetoric against President Bashar Al-Assad.
"We do not want to see him remain in Syria for stability’s sake, and rather, we view him as the cause of instability in Syria," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday.
"And we think, frankly, that it’s safe to say that Syria would be a better place without President Assad," he added in what was widely considered the closest Washington has yet come to calling for the Syrian leader’s ouster.
But the administration’s failure so far to call explicitly for Assad’s departure, as it did with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and as it has done repeatedly with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, is clearly frustrating neoconservatives and other hawks in the U.S. Congress who favour sweeping sanctions imposed against the regime, if not stronger action to force it out.
"The United States should impose crippling sanctions in response to the murder of civilians by troops under the orders of Syrian President Assad," said Republican Mark Kirk, one of three senators who Tuesday introduced a bill that would require Obama to block access to the U.S. financial system and contracts for U.S. and foreign companies that do business with Syria’s energy sector.
"The Arab Spring will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions similar to those levelled against the Iranian regime," he added.
But some independent analysts argued for caution, particularly with respect to sanctions, such as those proposed by Kirk and his colleagues, that would create new hardships on the Syrian people.
"Beyond condemning the killing of civilians by the regime, the U.S. should stay as far away as possible from the Syrian situation," said Bassam Haddad, a Levant expert at George Mason University. "Even in its rhetoric of the past few days, the administration is moving into dangerous territory that could actually strengthen the regime’s position."
The debate over U.S. policy toward Damascus has sharply intensified since the weekend as Syrian troops and security forces moved into Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city and the site of a brutal repression of an uprising in 1982 in which at least 10,000 people were killed, on the eve of Ramadan.
More than 150 people have reportedly been killed in the city over the last several days in perhaps the bloodiest crackdown against anti- government protesters since the ongoing rolling revolt began almost five months ago. At least 1,700 people have been killed since March, according to human rights groups.
In reaction to the most recent bloodshed, Obama Sunday issued his toughest statement to date, saying that he was "appalled" by the government’s use of "violence and brutality" and calling reports out of Hama "horrifying."
"Through his own actions, Bashar Al-Assad is ensuring that he and his regime will be left in the past…" Obama said, pledging to "increase our pressure on the Syrian regime, and work with others around the world to isolate the Assad government and stand with the Syrian people."
In another significant move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in Washington Tuesday with Syrian and Syrian-American activists in a show of support for the opposition, which, however, remains largely diffuse and leaderless.
At the same time, the U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who infuriated Damascus when he visited Hama in solidarity with the protesters two weeks ago, told a Senate confirmation hearing that the regime "is unwilling or unable to lead the democratic transition the Syrian people are demanding," although he declined to call for Assad’s departure.
In light of the violence in Hama, Washington and its European allies this week also renewed their push, which has been resisted by Russia and China, among others, for a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing the regime’s methods. That effort culminated Wednesday when they settled for a statement by the Council’s president that "condemn[ed] the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials, including Clinton and Ford, said that new sanctions, coordinated with the European Union (EU), against the regime and its supporters are being prepared and will be announced soon. It is not yet clear, however, whether these will consist, as in the past, of sanctions targeted at specific individuals around Al-Assad and key regime figures or more general measures designed to affect the entire economy.
In his testimony Tuesday, Ford claimed that existing sanctions were having an impact, particularly on targeted members of the business community but warned against any broad sanctions that could seriously damage the economy that would make it harder for a post-Assad regime to govern.
But that message as well as Ford’s insistence that his continued presence in Damascus is important is one that the hawks, including Kirk, do not want to hear.
They have been calling for some time for recalling Ford from his post and imposing "sweeping sanctions" particularly against exports of Syria’s heavy crude oil which account for about a third of the country’s export earnings that would grind the country’s already-battered economy to a halt in hopes of precipitating the government’s collapse.
Such a strategy has been repeatedly advanced by Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near Policy (WINEP), an offshoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and hard-line neoconservative figures and institutions closely associated with Israel’s Likud Party, such as the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Some of the administration’s interventionist critics have gone further, endorsing crippling economic sanctions for the economy and arguing in favour of Washington’s working with other interested powers, such as Turkey and France, to convene a "contact group" that would work to transform the now-diffuse opposition into "the nucleus of a transition government," much as it has done in Libya.
That strategy was laid out last week in an article in The American Interest coauthored Michael Doran, a top Mideast aide under former President George W. Bush, and Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre, who also urged Washington to promote defections in Damascus’ security services, among other measures.
"It sounds like Iraq redux," said one Syria expert, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, who noted the scheme’s similarities to the economic sanctions imposed against Iraq and failed schemes by Ahmad Chalabi and his neoconservative backers here to spark mass defections in the Iraqi Army in the decade before the U.S. invasion.
"The trouble is, the West has convinced itself the regime is on its last legs, and we don’t really know that," Landis told IPS. "The regime is tough; it hasn’t ruled Syria for 40 years just to be blown away by peaceful demonstrations. And, while there have been defections at lower levels, there’s nothing so far that presents a real threat. This is going to be a long and brutal struggle."
"And for America to step in the middle of this and believe it can short-circuit the process and organise and take control of the Syrian opposition, and pick the winners is the height of presumption," he said. "We’ve been there in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.