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US, with France, expand sanctions on Syria's “illegitimate” regime

In shift, Western powers move decisively against Syria's president.

“Every day the regime and the president talk about reforms, but we continue to see actions like night raids, arbitrary detentions and torture, actions that run counter to the reforms the regime has been promising,” said a Western diplomat. “Every day lost damages the president’s credibility further.”

This week’s National Dialogue meeting, billed by Assad as the only means to end the crisis in Syria despite being boycotted by the opposition, was merely “talking about talking,” said the diplomat, with no timetable set for implementation of reforms, such as removing the Baath Party’s constitutional stranglehold over politics.

The U.S. embassy official welcomed the announcement by Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, who chaired the National Dialogue, that travel bans on political activists would be lifted, a move that would allow exiled opposition members to return to Syria.

“Now it’s time for the regime to put its money where its mouth is,” said the U.S. embassy official. “They need to allow opposition groups to come and go, to meet freely — and not just for government sponsored meetings — to organize and demonstrate freely. There is still a chance for the regime to create the right circumstances for a credible dialogue to go on.”

Though his Hama trip provoked a furious reaction, the embassy official confirmed that U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has plans to visit further cities, presumably to see again for himself the protests that are taking place across Syria on an almost daily basis.

Unconfirmed reports suggested Ford would be visiting Deir Ezzour, a sprawling tribal city on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria’s eastern desert, where on Thursday two protestors were killed by security forces.

Like Hama, Deir Ezzour has been largely out of the control of security forces for several weeks, with residents observing a strike, burning all images and statues of the Assad family while the military and secret police remain withdrawn to the edges of the city.

While the hardening of the U.S. position toward Damascus may have been triggered by the attack on the U.S. embassy, the third such incident since 1998, Tabler said America’s relations with the Assad regime had long been souring over its deepening ties to Iran, stoking sectarian tensions in the region, deposing the Western-backed government in Lebanon and transferring weapons to Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist group by Washington.

What kept U.S. pressure tempered, he said, was the old policy of seeking a peace treaty between Israel and the 41-year-old Assad regime in exchange for Damascus decisively breaking its ties to Iran. That policy, pursued to varying degrees by successive U.S. administrations since the 1970s, has now been shelved, Tabler said.

“Peace talks with Israel are over. That option has finished. For any peace talks to go ahead there has to be a legitimate leader, and with such deep internal problems, Assad is not that,” Tabler said.

“The U.S. has every interest in a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, but in the future it will have to be with Syria as a country, not just the Assad regime. You would have to set the bar very low, near the ground, to say the Syrian regime today is in any way in the interests of the U.S.”