US seeks more pressure on Syria, but options are limited
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is facing intensifying calls to punish Syria more forcefully for its bloody crackdown of protests, but officials say that without broader international support they have few options to increase pressure on President Bashar Assad’s government.
A group of senators introduced legislation on Tuesday that would impose even stronger economic sanctions against Syria than those already imposed against Assad and a coterie of senior aides. Italy, meanwhile, withdrew its ambassador to Syria and called on other nations to do so, echoing calls by Republicans for President Barack Obama to do the same.
In New York, the United Nations Security Council met for a second day on Tuesday to discuss the violence, but remained divided over how strongly to react to it. A spokesman for the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, issued the organization’s sharpest criticism yet, saying Assad had “lost all sense of humanity.”
In Washington, administration officials vowed tougher measures but stopped short of announcing any new ones, underscoring how difficult a diplomatic and political challenge the continued crackdown in Syria has become for Obama.
The administration plans to expand existing sanctions first imposed in May, officials said, but the legal process for doing that has lagged behind Syria’s accelerating violence against protesters, including brutal attacks that began on Sunday in Hama and other cities. The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 Syrians since March, according to the United Nations, which cited human rights groups’ reports.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, testifying before the Senate on Tuesday, said sanctions against senior Syrian officials were beginning to bite. He also disclosed that the administration was discussing additional sanctions with the Europeans that would have a more direct effect.
“Unilaterally, additional American measures are not going to have that big an impact,” Ford said. Underscoring the administration’s clear but not explicitly stated goal of a new government in Syria, he said it was important that any punitive sanctions be calibrated in such a way as to not devastate the economy in a “post-Assad” era.
After initially holding out hope that Assad would heed the protests that have swept the Arab world this year, Obama has steadily intensified his criticism — only to watch Syrian security forces respond to protesters with more and more force.