Editorial: Time to Get Serious About Syria

It was but a few months ago when the eyes of the world were focused on the events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt’s Tahrir Square. As thousands of men and woman took to the streets to peacefully protest their government, we wondered if a new era of a democratic Arab world was unfolding before our very eyes.

But what was a spring filled with optimism and hope has, in some key states, turned into a summer of brutality and bloodshed. Citizen uprisings have been met by the forceful fist of autocratic regimes in countries like Libya and Yemen. Perhaps the worst of these violent crackdowns has been going on in Syria, where unimaginable human rights abuses have been mounting over the past five months.

More than 1,600 civilians—including scores of women and children—have been killed by Syrian forces since March. Activists report that as many as 10,000 others remain missing as part of the crackdown by Syrian President Bashar Assad. And new reports of mass arrests, torture and executions emerge each week.

Assad’s brutal tactics in response to the peaceful protests come at the advice and training of his lone remaining ally in the region: Iran. Tehran’s role in Syria’s domestic crackdown has bolstered its influence over Damascus. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—which effectively squashed the 2009 Presidential protests in Iran over the fraudulent election results—has been training and equipping the Syrian security forces that are leading this violent oppression.

Steps in the Right Direction

The United States has rightly shifted our policy to isolate the Assad regime. We condemned the Assad regime’s “outrageous use of violence” and “outrageous human rights abuses.” And on June 12 we declared that the Syrian president had lost the legitimacy to lead.

Pressure on the Syrian regime has thus far come in the form of international censure and U.S. sanctions targeting the Syrian elite and its security forces. Assad and senior members of his government are banned from entering the United States and any assets they have that are subject to U.S. jurisdiction have been frozen. These actions are steps in the right direction, but they have yet to make the regime change course, lead a democratic transition or break off its close ties with Iran—which would deliver a damaging blow to the Islamic Republic and have strategic repercussions throughout the entire region.

Accordingly, it is time to increase the economic and political pressure on the regime. The United States and the West have the ability to intensify the sanctions against Damascus. The 2003 Syria Accountability Act empowers the president to sanction Syrian banks and businesses facilitating Syria’s illicit activities, though it has not been fully implemented. U.S. companies and Syrian firms are still conducting business with each other. Sanctions would have a serious impact on the Syrian economy and serve to further isolate the regime.

Congress Calls on Administration to Increase Sanctions

Members of the Senate and the House are circulating bipartisan letters calling on the administration to fully enact the 2003 law. The letters to the president urge him to immediately impose tough economic measures against Syria. Relevant measures include banning U.S. businesses operating or investing in Syria, restricting travel by Syrian officials in the United States and blocking property transactions in which the Syrian government has an interest.

The Senate letter is cosponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who was an original co-sponsor of the 2003 Act, and Jim DeMint (R-SC). The chairwoman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Howard Berman (D-CA), are co-sponsoring the letter to their House colleagues.

Decisive Action Required

Decisive action by the United States and the international community is the only way to deliver the message to Assad that it is not business as usual for his regime. The implications of insufficient action extend well beyond Damascus. Syria must know that the international community’s statements are more than words on a page. Whether it’s the president saying that Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead or that Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon is “unacceptable,” his words will only be influential if they are accompanied by tough, decisive action.

An immediate bolstering of the sanctions regime against Assad is necessary to put an end to the egregious human rights abuses occurring in Syria and to stop Iran’s meddling in the country. America must continue to assert its leadership role and fully implement the existing 2003 law in order to force Assad to change how he is treating his own people, cease his support for terrorist groups like Hizballah and break ties from the Islamic Republic of Iran. BACK TO TOP