By Jim Lobe*
HAVANA TIMES, May 5, 2011 (IPS) — Amid a continuing crackdown against opposition forces, U.S. President Barack Obama is coming under growing pressure to impose tougher sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Two key lawmakers with close ties to the powerful “Israel Lobby” on Capitol Hill called Thursday for Obama to fully enforce existing sanctions, which would deny Damascus access to a range of technologies, and step up assistance to opposition activists both in Syria and abroad.
“Syria is not only hosting the world’s worst terrorist groups and developing weapons of mass destruction,” said New York Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel in releasing a letter co-signed by the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “Now it’s murdering its own people.”
“It’s long past time to impose the full range of sanctions on Syria and to work with our allies to tighten the screws on the Assad regime,” he added.
The letter followed the suggestion earlier this week by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak that Assad’s crackdown had so alienated the Syrian population that it was unlikely that he could fully restore his authority over the country, even if he halted the repression now.
“I don’t think Israel should be alarmed by the possibility of Assad being replaced,” Barak told a television interviewer in an unprecedented comment on the crisis by a top Israeli official.
The statement was particularly notable because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly told his ministers not to discuss the situation in public due in part to strong disagreements within the national-security establishment over whether Assad’s demise would serve or disserve Israel’s interests.
Barak’s assessment regarding the likely trajectory of the upheaval that has wracked its northern neighbour, however, also reflects the views of a growing number of analysts here who believe that popular discontent – if not outrage – with the government’s repression has become significantly more widespread over the past ten days, particularly since security forces besieged and occupied the southern city of Dera’a where the protests were first launched seven weeks ago.
The Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS) reported Thursday that several hundred people, including women and children, had been killed during a two-day period in Dera’a – among them some 81 soldiers and officers who, according to sources cited by the Centre, are believed to have been shot for refusing orders to fire on civilians. Assad was quoted Wednesday as saying that military operations in the city would end “very soon”.
International human rights groups have reported that well over 500 people have been killed by security forces since protests began in March, but that figure is regarded by many as a conservative estimate.
Hundreds – and possibly thousands – more have reportedly been arrested in round-ups that have continued this week in Syria’s two largest cities – Damascus and Aleppo – which have until now remained relatively quiet, as well as in other key towns, notably Homs, Latakia, Saqba, Qamishly, and Dera’a.
Amnesty International reported Tuesday that it had received first- hand accounts of torture and other ill-treatment from detainees who have been released. There have also been reports that those who have been released have been told to tell others of the harsh treatment they received to discourage further protests.
“These disturbing new accounts of detainees being tortured further underscore the need for President Bashar al-Assad to put an end to his security forces’ violent onslaught against his own people,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Neo-conservatives, who, as in neighbouring Iraq, have long favoured actions designed to oust the ruling Baath Party, and their allies in Congress have urged Obama to take stronger action against the regime since the outset of the protests.
Elliott Abrams, who served as a top Middle East aide to former President George W. Bush and reportedly urged Israel to include Syria on its target list at the outset of its 2006 war on Hezbollah, has repeatedly urged the administration to pursue a diplomatic and economic strategy designed to isolate and ultimately bring down the regime.
“The demise of this murderous clan [the Assads] is in America’s interest,” he wrote on his blog the day after the first protests in Dera’a were met with a violent response by Damascus’ security forces in late March.
In late April, three influential senators, Republicans John McCain and Lindsay Graham and Independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman, called on Obama to impose tough sanctions and publicly demand that Assad resign, as he did with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
Several days later, on Apr. 29, Obama announced a freeze on the assets of three senior government officials, including Assad’s brother, implicated in human rights abuses. At the same time, the administration helped gain passage of a resolution before the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning the violence.
But the administration has so far rejected appeals to impose sanctions directly on Assad or call for his resignation, urging him instead to stop the repression and implement far-reaching political reforms as he has repeatedly promised he would.
It has also sought to coordinate its position with the European Union, which is itself deeply divided on the best course and is currently considering targeted sanctions against 15 officials, including Assad himself.
Washington’s hesitation reflects the widespread belief that Assad’s ouster could usher in a period of chaos and possible sectarian civil war that could easily spill over into neighbouring Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon and threaten the de facto peace that has prevailed along the armistice lines between Israel and Syria in the disputed Golan Heights since 1973.
On other hand, a growing number of analysts here believe that the repression is steadily reducing Assad’s base of support, diminishing the possibility – if it still exists – that he can ever regain the confidence of key sectors of the population, particularly the youth.
That calculation appears to be leading some to take a more-hawkish position, although military intervention, as in Libya, enjoys virtually no support at all.
In one notable shift, Steven Cook, a well-respected Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), wrote on his CFR blog this week that while there was a risk that a “new, nastier dictatorship or generalized instability” would follow Assad’s demise, the risk was worth taking in light of the “strategic opportunity” of breaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance that the Assad dynasty has fostered.
Urging Obama to publicly back the opposition and call for Assad’s departure, as well as increase sanctions, Cook wrote that the “potential for isolating Iran – a primary policy goal of the United States since the 1980s – is worth the risk.”
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.