U.S. Pressures Assad With Talks to Activists, Sanctions Proposal

The U.S. is stepping up the pressure on Syria, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met yesterday with opposition activists and lawmakers announced new sanctions legislation against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Obama administration is also looking at ways to bolster existing sanctions, in Congress and with the United Nations, and is working with allies to hit Syria with new energy-related penalties, according to Clinton and the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.

Clinton met with Syrian-American opposition supporters after government forces battered the city of Hama with artillery and tank fire for the third consecutive day. The clashes prompted President Barack Obama to decry Assad’s “brutality” and renew U.S. determination to squeeze the Assad regime.

Clinton said she assured the activists of the administration’s support of their efforts to bring about a “peaceful and orderly transition to democracy,” the top U.S. diplomat said in a statement released late yesterday. “We have nothing invested in the continuation of a regime that must kill, imprison and torture its own citizens to maintain power.”

The goal of additional sanctions is “to isolate the Assad regime politically and deny it revenue with which to sustain its brutality,” Clinton said.

Security Council Meeting

She also noted the United Nations Security Council talks this week to discuss the situation in Syria and chided council members, such as China, that oppose calling on Assad to end the violence.

“Strong action by the Security Council on the targeting of innocent civilians in Syria is long overdue,” Clinton said. “Some members of the Security Council continue to oppose any action that would call on President Assad to stop the killing, and we urge them to reconsider their positions.”

Ford, who met with Obama two days ago, told senators at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday that backing the forces of change could give the U.S. a chance to reshape the region.

“We have a real opportunity with change in Syria to see both Iranian influence and Hezbollah influence in the region diminish,” said Ford, a career diplomat who has been serving as ambassador under a December 2010 recess appointment by Obama.

Syria is Iran’s chief ally in the region, and both support Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim political group that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.

Iranian Connection

Since the protests began in mid-March, Iran has provided Syria with military and technical assistance to help it suppress protesters, according to the lawmakers behind a new bill that would punish companies that invest in Syria’s energy sector.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat; Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican; and Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, introduced the Syria Sanctions Act of 2011 to target the one-third of the country’s revenue that comes from oil and gas exports.

U.S. law bans most trade with Syria. The sanctions measure would extend those restrictions to foreign companies. It would require the president to block access to U.S. financial institutions, markets and federal contracts for those who do business with the Syrian energy sector.

Companies that falsely claim not to do business with Syria would be subject to a three-year ban on U.S. government contracts.

‘Sweep Away’ Assad

“Syria will not have access to the global economy and neither will any company doing business with Syria,” Gillibrand said in a statement. Doing business with Syria funds terrorism, she said.

Kirk said the Arab Spring movement that has already toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia “will sweep away this dictatorship, hopefully with the help of American sanctions.”

In his testimony to senators, Ford said that unilateral U.S. sanctions “don’t have much bite” because there is so little U.S.-Syria trade.

Sanctions with allies that have greater trade ties with Syria would be more effective, he said, adding that “Europeans and Canadians have greater investments in Syria’s energy sector” and that conversations about sanctions with those countries are under way.

“The Syrian government’s latest action will help trigger action, frankly,” Ford said of the recent violence and the international outrage it has generated.

Asking for More

The Syrian activists asked Clinton to have the U.S. do more to rally that kind of international pressure on the Assad regime.

Radwan Ziadeh, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University in Washington, told reporters they called on the U.S. to lead at the Security Council, which at the same time was meeting in New York to discuss a revised draft resolution submitted by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal to condemn the violence.

The activists asked for increased sanctions against Syria and for the Security Council to refer the actions taken during a recent crackdown on protesters to the International Criminal Court. And they told Clinton that they would like Obama to “address the courage of the Syrian people” and demand that Assad step down, a step the president has yet to take.

“We are seeking diplomatic and political support from the United States,” opposition activist Marah Bukai said.

Clinton expressed her admiration and support for Syrians defying the government assault, even as fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan has begun, said Mark Toner, the State Department’s acting spokesman.

Toner said the grass-roots Syrian opposition has only grown in strength and numbers as the crackdown has continued. As a group, though, the opposition is still “evolving,” Toner said, and still lacks the coherence of the Transitional National Council that formed to oppose Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

To contact the reporters on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net; Victoria Pelham in Washington at vpelham@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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