The State Department said Monday that the United States is considering new sanctions against Syria amid what it calls the Damascus government’s “despicable and abhorrent” crackdown on dissent in advance of the Ramadan holiday period. The U.S. measures could target Syria’s vital energy sector.
The administration is ratcheting up its rhetoric on what President Barack Obama on Sunday called “horrifying” violence against Syrian protesters. And officials here at the State Department say that might soon be accompanied by new sanctions.
State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said that additional U.S. steps might target Syria’s oil and gas industry, which is the government’s main source of revenue amid the virtual collapse of the rest of the country’s economy.
Toner condemned acts of official violence since Sunday against protesters in Hama, Dier ez-Zor, suburban Damascus and elsewhere as Syrians prepare to observe Ramadan.
“We find these violent attempts by the Syrian regime to target civilians on the eve of Ramadan to be despicable and abhorrent," said Toner. "We’ve seen this over the past few days where the Assad regime has increasingly used force against its own citizens - killing dozens, injuring thousands more. And during this period, which should be a time of prayer and family gathering, we join the world in mourning the deaths of countless innocent Syrians, especially children.”
President Obama alluded to new sanctions in his written statement Sunday, saying that the United States will increase its pressure on Syria “in the days ahead,” and work with other states to isolate the government of Bashar al-Assad and stand with the Syrian people.
He said the Syrian leader has shown himself to be completely incapable and unwilling to respond to legitimate grievances, and that his brutal tactics put him “on the wrong side of history.”
Despite the criticism, the United States maintains full diplomatic relations with the Assad government. The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, is in Washington for his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday and is expected to face questions about the utility of U.S.-Syria relations.
Syria expert David Schenker of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says it might be time to consider breaking ties with the Damascus government, which he says that despite American outreach has worked “assiduously” to undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East.
“You can say that we will no longer recognize this government as the legitimate government of Syria," said Schenker. "You can say that we will deal with the opposition. We will work with the opposition to create a better vision for the future of Syria. This regime is not a regime with which we can do business, and I think that is certainly an option.”
Schenker says the Syrian leader is concerned that the Ramadan period, when the Muslim faithful crowd the country’s mosques, will be decisive to the survival of his government.
He says that if the United States sided unambiguously with the Syrian opposition, it could bring previously uncommitted Syrians into the streets and perhaps tip the balance against the current leadership.
Schenker said Syrians have shown “amazing courage” in the face of government violence, and have by all accounts have been “stunned” by the relative silence of the international community on the crackdown.
In a written statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged U.N. Security Council member countries that have thus far opposed action to “stop the killing” in Syria to reconsider. She reiterated that President Assad has “lost his legitimacy” and said Syria “will be a better place” when a democratic transition goes forward.
Officials say Clinton will meet a delegation of Syrian-American leaders on Tuesday to hear their views on the situation.