August 19, 2011 | Quote

Conservatives Suggest Syria Next Steps

President Barack Obama said yesterday that he wants to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down from office, and promised to implement more sanctions on the Syrian regime. But conservatives in Washington have several additional ideas for how to up the pressure on Assad.

Thirty-two mostly conservative national security experts wrote a letter to Obama today on the letterhead of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies commending him for calling on Assad to step down and urging him to quickly ramp up the pressure on his regime. “We are concerned… that unless urgent actions are taken by the United States and its allies, the Assad regime's use of force against the Syrian people will only increase and the already significant death toll will mount,” the letter said.

The signatories want Obama to push hard for multilateral energy sector sanctions and to advocate for the passage of new Syria sanctions legislation, which was introduced in Congress earlier this month. They also think the administration should encourage Germany, Italy, and France to stop buying Syrian oil, forcefully urge energy trading firms from Switzerland, Holland, and elsewhere to stop selling Syria refined petroleum products, and sanction any person involved in Syrian pipeline construction, including insurance firms, shipping companies, financing entities, and ports managers.

They also want harsher sanctions on Syria's central bank, punishment for anybody who buys Syrian debt, additional U.N. sanctions based on Syria's record of weapons and nuclear proliferation, and the recalling of U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford.

The letter reminded the president that the fall of the Assad regime would not only be a boon for the Syrian people, but also have “game-changing implications” for the balance of power in the Middle East. “It would deny Iran the use of its major ally as a proxy for terrorism, stem the flow of Syrian arms to Hezbollah, reduce instability in Lebanon, and lessen tensions on Israel's northern border,” the signatories wrote.

The group commended Obama's new executive order that requires the immediate freeze of all Syrian government assets that fall under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibits U.S. citizens from doing any business with the Syrian government. The new sanctions also ban the import of Syrian petroleum products into the United States, and ban Americans from doing business with Syrian petroleum companies.

The signers include former NSC Middle East official Elliott Abrams, the Council on Foreign Relations' Max Boot, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, AEI's Fred Kagan, the Brookings Institution's Bob Kagan, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, former CIA Director James Woolsey, top GOP consultant Randy Scheunemann, and former NSC official Jamie Fly, now executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

The calls for Ford's recall have been echoed in both the House and Senate. House Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) yesterday praised the administration's move but reiterated her call for Ford for come back to Washington.

Several nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have recalled their ambassadors from Damascus but the Obama administration argues that Ford's activities on the ground, including a recent visit to protests in Hama, are helping the opposition. Ros-Lehtinen disagrees.

“It is also important that the administration take the next step in ending its engagement policy and reverse its mistake of sending a U.S. ambassador to Syria,” she said in a statement. “The continued presence of an ambassador in Damascus sends a mixed message to the Syrian regime and gives legitimacy to Assad and his cronies.”

Full text of the letter after the jump:

August 19, 2011

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear President Obama:

We commend you for your administration's statement that “the future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way… For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

We are concerned, however, that unless urgent actions are taken by the United States and its allies, the Assad regime's use of force against the Syrian people will only increase and the already significant death toll will mount.

As you have stated previously, the Arab Spring presents an opportunity to “pursue the world as it should be” rather than continuing to “accept the world as it is.”  There is perhaps no place where this is truer than Syria.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad and that of his father which preceded him, have brutally repressed the Syrian people for decades, imprisoning, torturing, and killing those who attempted dissent.  In recent years, Syria has formed increasingly close ties with Iran, jointly supporting terrorist groups with funds and weaponry used to terrorize American allies in the region.  For years, the Assad regime pursued a covert nuclear program with North Korean assistance, which could have led to a disastrous cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.  Finally, by facilitating foreign fighters' transit through Syrian territory, the Assad regime contributed to the death and injury of thousands of American troops serving in Iraq over the last eight years.

The tactics used by the current regime make clear now more than ever that a post-Assad Syria is in America's interest.  We commend you for adding your uniquely powerful voice to the chorus of foreign leaders in calling for Assad's departure. We appreciate the executive order issued today that freezes Syrian government assets in the U.S.'s jurisdiction and prohibits new investment in Syria by U.S. persons or the exportation or sale of any services to Syria by U.S. persons. We commend you for freezing imports of Syrian petroleum products and prohibiting U.S. persons from transacting business related to Syrian-origin petroleum products. The actions send a strong message of support to the Syrian people in their quest for freedom.

We believe there is more than can be done. Specifically, we urge you to:

•    Work with our European allies to tighten the sanctions regime against Syria.  Particular attention should be paid to potential multilateral energy sector sanctions as well as the passage of energy sanctions bills recently introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate.

•    Encourage Germany, Italy, and France, which are the main buyers of Syrian oil, to terminate their purchases of Syrian crude; forcefully urge energy trading firms from Switzerland, Holland, and elsewhere to stop their sales of refined petroleum products to Syria; and pressure European, Russian, Chinese, and Indian companies to freeze their investments in Syria's energy sector and the transfer of any energy-related technology, goods, and services.

•    Sanction any person assisting Syria in the development of energy pipelines as well as insurance firms, shipping companies, financing entities, ports managers, and other persons active in supporting Syria's energy sector.

•    Implement measures against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps individuals and entities doing business in Syria.  Expand sanctions against Syrian persons who are involved in human rights abuses, support for terrorism, and supporting Syria's proliferation activities.  Sanction those international companies doing business with these designated Iranian and Syrian individuals and entities.

•    Sanction the Syrian Central Bank in order to freeze the Assad regime out of the global financial system and inhibit the ability of the regime to settle oil sales and other financial transactions. It is important to ensure that the Central Bank of Syria does not facilitate trade for any sanctioned Syrian banks, businesses and persons.

•    Work with our European allies to follow your lead in sanctioning the Commercial Bank of Syria and the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank.

•    Sanction international persons involved in the purchase, issuance, financing or the facilitation of Syrian sovereign debt, including energy bonds, which the Assad regime may use to circumvent investment-related sanctions in order to raise capital for its energy sector.

•    Engage Syrian opposition figures outside the country and ensure that all available aid and assistance, including secure communications and Internet circumvention technology is being made available to these groups.

•    Leverage the International Atomic Energy Agency's referral of Syria to the United Nations Security Council for its violation of its nonproliferation obligations to press for additional sanctions against Damascus.

•    Recall Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus unless he is clearly charged with aiding the transition to democracy in Syria.

Mr. President, the opportunity presented by recent developments in Syria and the broader region is momentous.  As you said in May, “we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.” Supporting Syrians to rid themselves of Assad's yoke would also have broader game-changing implications on peace and stability in the Middle East. It would deny Iran the use of its major ally as a proxy for terrorism, stem the flow of Syrian arms to Hezbollah, reduce instability in Lebanon, and lessen tensions on Israel's northern border.

This is a significant moment where many of our allies and partners in Europe and the region are in agreement that the Assad atrocities must stop now. They are poised to act. Now is the time to continue placing the United States firmly on the side of the Syrian people.  We urge you to grasp this opportunity and increase your administration's efforts to ensure that the brave people taking to the streets in Syria are soon able to enjoy the fruits of freedom that we in the West hold so dear.


Khairi Abaza, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Ammar Abdulhamid, pro-democracy Syrian activist
Hussain Abdul-Hussain, Kalimah Institute
Elliott Abrams, Council on Foreign Relations
Amr Al-Azm, Member, Executive Committee, Antalia Committee and Professor, Shawnee State University
Tony Badran, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Bassam Bitar, Former Diplomat in the Syrian Embassy (Paris)
Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations
Toby Dershowitz, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Michael Doran, Brookings Institution
Mark Dubowitz, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Jamie Fly, Foreign Policy Initiative
Reuel Marc Gerecht, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Michael Makovsky, Bipartisan Policy Center
John Hannah, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
William Inboden, University of Texas-Austin
Frederick W. Kagan, American Enterprise Institute
Robert Kagan, Brookings Institution
William Kristol, Weekly Standard
Robert J. Lieber, Georgetown University
Bashar Lutfi, Northwest Medical Center
Clifford D. May, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Honorable Robert C. McFarlane, Former National Security Advisor
Jonathan Schanzer, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Randy Scheunemann, Orion Strategies
Gary Schmitt, American Enterprise Institute
Lee Smith, Foundation for Defense of Democracies and The Weekly Standard
Henry Sokolski, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center
Leon Wieseltier
Ambassador R. James Woolsey, Former Director of Central Intelligence, Chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Robert Zarate, Foreign Policy Initiative