A senior U.S. State Department official said Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s actions against protesters are "completely inconsistent with those of a responsible leader." U.S. diplomats are talking to European allies about new sanctions targeting the Syrian ruling circle.
Officials here stop short of saying that Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule. They are ratcheting up their criticism of the Syrian leader, however, amid reports that the death toll in 40 days of protests against the Damascus government may now exceed 400.
In a talk with reporters, the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan called the Syrian government's crackdown "brutal and reprehensible" - and said it must respect and adhere to universal rights of freedom of speech and assembly.
He said Assad, who the Obama administration originally hoped would be a dialogue partner on Middle East peacemaking, has clearly taken the wrong path in dealing with the country’s worst political crisis in decades.
"President Assad is on the wrong track and that he has to change course," said Sullivan. "We have also made the case that the actions he’s undertaking are not consistent with the actions of a responsible government. And we will continue to make that case publicly, and we will make it privately to the Syrians, as Assistant Secretary Feltman has done, as Ambassador Ford has done, and as we have done through statements going up to, and including, the President of the United States."
The Obama administration battled heavy opposition in Congress to posting a full U.S. ambassador to Damascus and ended up sending envoy Robert Ford to Syria in a so-called recess appointment, circumventing Senate action, that expires at the end of the year.
Sullivan, a close advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stressed the continued utility of high-level dialogue with Syria, saying that Ford has directly registered U.S. concern about the crackdown this week with top Syrian officials.
He said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman called in Syria’s envoy in Washington to the State Department Monday to lodge a similar complaint.
Sullivan said the Obama administration is consulting with key European allies about a joint imposition of new targeted sanctions on Syrian leaders aimed at prodding them to change course.
The United States already has various sanctions in place against Syria related to that country’s presence on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. But Sullivan said U.S. officials still believe that properly-focused sanctions can affect Syrian behavior.
"I would say the notion of targeted sanctions, aimed at those who are responsible for perpetrating this violence, can sharpen the choice for those people, and can sharpen the choice for the regime," said Sullivan. "And that is the theory behind exploring this potential alternative. And I stress that it is not something we have decided to do yet."
U.S. and European diplomats are reported to be circulating a draft U.N. Security Council statement condemning the Syrian violence and calling for an independent inquiry into the deaths of demonstrators, as a possible prelude to sanctions.
The United States ordered the departure late Monday of non-emergency embassy personnel and dependents from Damascus, while urging U.S. citizens to defer all travel to Syria, and advising Americans already there to leave while commercial transportation is still available.