WASHINGTON — The United States and the rest of the international community need to increase pressure to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and develop a comprehensive strategy to assist in forging democracy in the country once he's gone.
That was the thrust of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing Wednesday in which lawmakers heard from State Department and Treasury Department officials on what steps the U.S. is taking to help facilitate Assad's exit.
"We must take specific and visible actions to support democratic reform," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs. "We need to make it clear to the regime's supporters that their behavior will not be tolerated, and they will be held accountable."
Amid Assad's threats to turn his country into "another Afghanistan" if the United States and Western nations intervene and assist the opposition forces that are trying to overthrow him, the Obama administration has ratcheted up diplomatic and economic pressure on the controversial Syrian leader.
Last May, President Barack Obama ordered sanctions on Assad and six of his top deputies in response to their bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.
Human rights groups say that more than 3,500 Syrians have been killed and tens of thousands of people have been detained since the uprising began.
Obama's orders froze the financial assets that Assad has in U.S. institutions, and they prohibit Americans from doing business with him.
Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said the U.S. sanctions, coupled with similar actions by European nations, had squeezed Assad's cash flow.
"Oil revenue, which used to make up about a third of government revenue, is drying up," Feltman said in written testimony. "Europe used to buy more than 90 percent of Syria's crude. Today it buys none."
More still needs to be done, Feltman told lawmakers. The Arab League, which has criticized Assad's crackdown, must become more active in supporting the Syrian opposition, he said.
"We hope the Arab League will take additional, clear measures to express its condemnation of the Syrian regime and solidarity with the Syrian people, while taking a leading role in building international pressure for a political transition in Syria, including at the United Nations," he said.
Lawmakers and State and Treasury department officials think that Assad's days in power are numbered, though they worry about his ability to inflict more pain on his people.
While hailing the pressure put on Assad, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Republican, expressed concern about destabilization in the Middle East, and who'd fill the power vacuum when Assad was gone.
"Hypothetically, let's say he does go tomorrow, who steps in?" Lugar asked.
"That's one of the real challenges, because the opposition in Syria is still divided," Feltman conceded. He added that the opposition needs to become more inclusive and to plot a post-Assad path for the country.
(Panhwer, a McClatchy special correspondent, is a reporter-editor at Associated Press of Pakistan in Hyderabad, Pakistan. He's reporting for the McClatchy Washington Bureau in partnership with the International Center for Journalists. The program is funded by the State Department.)
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