A Fact Sheet from Foreign Policy Initiative, Washington D.C. on July 14, 2011 presented the facts in the case against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces. They have killed as many 1,600 civilians since protests began in March. Human rights organizations also estimate that at least 12,000 Syrians have been arrested or detained. In response, the White House has publicly condemned the Assad regime’s violent and lethal suppression of Syrian protestors, and imposed U.S. sanctions on certain Syrian government officials and entities for human rights abuses.

But until recently, the Obama administration had avoided calling for the Syrian dictator to step down—and instead appeared to hold out hope that Assad would yet prove himself to be a “reformer.” That began to change on July 11, 2011, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States has “absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”

The Arab Spring has given rise to mass protest movements throughout the Middle East and North Africa, in which everyday people are risking their lives to stand up to tyrannical regimes and demand moderate governance that respects human rights and the rule of law. Syria is no exception.

In the long term, a democratic and moderate Syria is in America’s interest and would benefit regional stability. As the Executive Branch and Congress mull changes to U.S. policy towards Syria, this FPI Fact Sheet outlines five steps that the United States can take to hasten Assad’s exit.

(1) Unequivocally call for Bashar al-Assad to step down

The United States should leave no doubt that it sides with the Syrian people by demanding that President Bashar al-Assad immediately step down. It is worth noting that France has already done this. For example, as French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said: “The situation is now very clear. In Syria, the process of reform is dead and we think that Bashar has lost his legitimacy to rule the country. And so we are in exactly the same position as we are in Libya.”

(2) Further sanction the Assad regime for human rights abuses

The United States should work to impose further unilateral and multilateral sanctions on the Assad regime for its ongoing human rights abuses.

First, the White House should get other countries—especially in Europe—to impose sanctions similar to those that the United States has already imposed on the Syrian government, such as:

• The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 (Public Law 108-175), which already forbids a wide range of U.S. exports to Syria

• Executive Order 13572, signed by President Obama on April 29, 2011, which targets the property and interests not only of several high-ranking Syrian officials and entities, but also of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force, which is believed to be aiding Syria’s crackdown on protestors.

• Executive Order 13573, signed by President Obama on May 18, 2011, which 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.

Second, the Executive Branch and Congress should push for multilateral sanctions on Syria’s energy industry and other sectors that fund the Assad regime. The petroleum sector alone provides as much as a third of the Syrian government’s revenue. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Andrew J. Tabler said, “If you really want to pressure the Assad regime, targeting energy makes sense because it deprives them of a source of revenue.”

Third, the Obama administration should redouble efforts to get the United Nations Security Council to pass measures in response to the Syrian government’s human rights abuses.
(3) Withdraw the U.S. Ambassador to Syria and expel Syria’s Ambassador to the United States
President Obama should recall the U.S. Ambassador to Syria—unless the administration is willing to use him as a proactive and public advocate for the Syrian people in their struggle against Assad. Notwithstanding Ambassador Robert Ford’s praiseworthy visit to Hama on July 8, 2011, the continued presence of a U.S. envoy in Damascus lends legitimacy to the Assad regime.

In an effort to engage Damascus, Obama used a recess appointment in December 2010 to install Ford as the first U.S. Ambassador to Syria since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Given that Syria has long been a state sponsor of terror, allied with Iran, and unwilling to conclude a peace deal with Israel, key U.S. lawmakers had objected to sending an envoy to Syria. At the time the administration had countered, “No other U.S. official in Damascus can provide the outreach and high-profile attention to the Syrian people that an ambassador can.”

Despite the Obama administration’s strategy of engagement with Syria, Assad has not renounced his support of terrorism, and his regime’s barbaric campaign against peaceful protesters demonstrates that its sole interest is to maintain power.

(4) Pressure the Assad regime over its secret nuclear program

The continuing controversy over Syria’s covert nuclear program gives the United States another lever to pressure the Assad regime internationally.

In September 2007, an Israeli airstrike destroyed the plutonium-producing nuclear reactor that Syria had secretly built, with North Korean assistance, near the town of al-Kibar—a reactor that the Assad regime could have used to acquire fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Syria was obligated to declare the existence of the al-Kibar reactor to the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In response, IAEA inspectors tried to investigate Syria’s nuclear program to make sure that no other undeclared nuclear sites or weapons-related nuclear activities exist. Syria, however, repeatedly stonewalled the IAEA’s investigation. As a result, the IAEA’s 35-nation Board of Governors voted on June 9, 2011, to find Syria in “noncompliance” with its international obligations, and send its case to the U.N. Security Council for further action.

(5) Get Turkey to exert pressure on the Assad regime

Finally, the United States should encourage Turkey to pressure President Assad to step down.


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