The Obama administration has turned down a plea from Syria’s democratic opposition to step up diplomatic pressure on President Bashar Assad, who has violently repressed peaceful anti-government protests.
“The White House has to date rejected our requests for stronger action on Syria,” Ammar Abdulhamid, an unofficial spokesman in the West for the Syrian activists organizing the widespread demonstrations, told The Washington Times.
Major protests have been called throughout Syria for Friday. On Thursday, Mr. Assad announced a new Cabinet and released some political prisoners in an attempt to head off more demonstrations.
In the past two weeks, National Security Council staff have held two meetings with Western representatives of the organizers of the Syrian demonstrations, the most sustained civil disobedience movement in Syria since Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, seized power in a 1966 military coup.
The movement in Syria, much like the Web-organized protests in Tunisia and Egypt before it, is leaderless and relies on local committees throughout the country that coordinate activities through Facebook and other social media.
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, “The National Security Council staff meet with stakeholders from a host of countries, including Syria, all the time. We get recommendations from these meetings and we take them under advisement.”
In the White House meetings, the opposition representatives have asked for President Obama personally to condemn the Assad regime on camera. They also called for the United States to impose sanctions on regime officials who ordered the military to fire on the crowds and for the United States to support a separate resolution against Syria at an April 27 session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“President Obama has not personally condemned the regime. The White House has not yet issued sanctions against officials who ordered soldiers to fire on peaceful demonstrators. The White House will not say whether they will pursue a Syria specific resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council,” Mr. Abdulhamid said.
The White House on April 8 issued a written statement from Mr. Obama that said, “It is time for the Syrian government to stop repressing its citizens and to listen to the voices of the Syrian people calling for meaningful political and economic reforms.”
On Thursday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner criticized Iran for helping Syria repress its non-violent opposition.
Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies who attended both meetings with White House officials, told The Washington Times that the administration’s response for more pressure on the Assad regime has been “lukewarm.”
“They told us they do not have the same leverage with Syria that they do with Egypt,” he said. “We asked them to use stronger language on Syria. We want Obama to say something himself in his own words.”
Mr. Ziadeh added that the U.S. officials said they are working with the European Union to draft a resolution for the Human Rights Council special session. But the proposed resolution will address the crackdowns in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
“We are trying to push the United States to do more on this,” he said. “We want to see a separate resolution on Syria.”
Mr. Ziadeh said 191 people have died since protests began in Syria on March 18. He estimated that at least 900 activists have been detained by the government.
Mr. Ziadeh said he is working with European diplomats on documenting Syrian human rights violations during the crackdown.
“We have a lot of video documentation and other documentation of torture,” he said.
Anas al-Abdah, chairman of the Movement for Justice and Development in Syria, said the opposition would like Mr. Assad to face trial before the International Criminal Court.
“There can be no more silence while blood of innocent civilians flows in Syria,” he said. “The U.S. and the EU should prosecute Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime in every available multilateral forum and take all necessary and immediate measures to stop the Syrian security forces from targeting civilians and violating international laws and conventions.”
“A good start would be at the United Nations, which can vote to set up a rapporteur to investigate reports of abuses in Syria,” he added.
“Any alleged breach of human rights would be reported to the U.N. Security Council, paving the way for further actions by the International Criminal Court. This move will send a clear message to Bashar al-Assad that he cannot continue to murder his own citizens with impunity.”
Mr. Assad and other senior Syrian officials, for now, have escaped prosecution at a U.N. tribunal established in 2005 to investigate the slaying that year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Other heads of state who have faced prosecution at the International Criminal Court include Sudanese President Omar Bashir and Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who died before his trial concluded.
Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement Thursday urged Mr. Assad to refrain from violence against his own people at the protests scheduled for Friday.
David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr. Obama has straddled the fence on Syria in the past month.
“This administration does not want to be seen right now as joining the movement for regime removal in Damascus,” he said.
“Nevertheless the atrocities are mounting. It is clear now that Assad will continue to repress violent protests on Friday. The administration should move ahead with the last of the Syria Accountability Act sanctions which would be to suspend all U.S. investment in Syria.”
Daniel Calingaert, the deputy director for programs at Freedom House, said, “It’s about time that the United States introduced targeted sanctions on the Syrian officials who are killing civilians and ordering those attacks.
“The United States should also push for the United Nations to investigate the abuses in Syria in a single resolution.”