August 8, 2011 | New York Daily News

A Battle Plan to Stop Assad: Three Steps to Focus the Brutal Dictator’s Mind

Before Syrian President Bashar Assad's blood-soaked crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, Western capitals pampered the London-educated eye doctor with carrots rather than sticks.

Needless to say, this approach has been found wanting. The question now is how, short of military action, the United States and its allies can pressure Assad, show solidarity with Syrian demonstrators and help to dislodge his Baathist regime.

Since protests first began in mid-March, Assad's security forces have murdered an estimated 2,000 Syrians and, today, the city of Hama is witnessing the single largest massacre since his father quelled a rebellion there in 1982.

“The Syrian regime is committing crimes against humanity,” says Suheir Atassi, a well-known Syrian democratic reformer who has gone into hiding to avoid Assad's security forces. “Where are the free people of the world?”

Sadly, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay's recent comment that the “world is watching” sums up the failure of the international community to stop Assad's lethal assaults against Syrian protesters.

Just watching is not enough. A mix of potent sanctions, robust diplomatic action and a joint appeal by Western leaders to Syrian protesters could push Assad's teetering regime over the edge.

Last week, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced the Syria Sanctions Act, which would require the President to impose tougher sanctions on Syria until it stops supporting terrorists, ceases its nuclear program and missile technology and WMD trade – and begins transitioning into a true democracy.

The bill would permit the President to target individuals or entities that make investments in Syria's energy sector at $5 million or more at one time or a combination of $20 million in one year. It would ban shipments of urgently needed refinery technologies and upgrades and could lead to penalties against non-U.S. companies that trade with Syria.

Skepticism toward sanctions is understandable, given our inability to change Iran's behavior so far. But they can disrupt Damascus' ability to fuel its tanks and transport its death squads, which have spent the past four months crisscrossing the country and gunning down demonstrators. Syria sells 148,000 barrels of crude oil each day, and its revenues account for $4 billion of the regime's $17.8 billion annual budget. In short, the rank and file of the Syrian armed forces depends on energy profits for its livelihood.

A second and arguably more important economic pressure point is a concerted European Union effort to slash consumption of Syrian oil, along with legislation dramatically curtailing the activities of European energy companies in Syria. Take the example of the British-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell. According to the the British environmental group Platform, which monitors international energy companies, approximately 17% of Syrian tanks run on fuel derived from Shell's stocks, and 4% to 8% of Syrian tanks used to repress the population are “financed through revenue from crude extracted by Shell and its partners.”

European states remain key to influencing a change in Syria. Germany, England, France and Italy – the continent's primary economic and political powerhouses – should follow the lead of the bipartisan congressional bill, and pressure Assad's regime in Europe.

A third means of influencing the behavior of the Syrian regime is an organized withdrawal of all Western ambassadors in Damascus and the ejection of all Syrian ambassadors in the West.

To his credit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has recalled his country's ambassador to Syria. The rest of the West, including the United States, should follow suit. The lack of a formal ambassador in Damascus does not rule out the presence of diplomats who can continue to monitor the situation on the ground. But it would send an important message to Syria's struggling democracy activists, namely, that the West rejects the legitimacy of Assad's regime.

Finally, Obama and the leaders of other democracies should make a joint appearance to declare their solidarity and support for those brave Syrians who dare to change their regime. A fitting venue might be Tunisia, which gave birth to the so-called Arab Spring.

Perhaps then Suheir Atassi could come out of hiding, for a glimpse of where the free world stands.

Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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Issues:

Syria