Syria - Reuters - April 17, 2011
Boys hold a banner during a demonstration in the the Syrian port city of Banias April 17, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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A State Department briefing with reporters on Tuesday provided a certain degree of clarification vis-à-vis the Obama administration's policy toward Syria; although the State Department sharply criticized President Bashar Assad's regime's brutality toward protesters, the U.S. hasn't given up hope on diplomatic engagement with the authoritarian Middle East regime.

The United States does not, according to the briefing, believe in the current feasibility of a peace deal between Damascus and Jerusalem. Israeli officials have admitted that Assad is in no position to enforce any kind of agreement in light of local unrest, and Jake Sullivan, director of policy planning at the State Department, seems to share these sentiments, despite the U.S. administration's ultimate goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace.

“Certainly, it’s hard for us to stand by and see Assad and his government engaged in this kind of campaign against their own people," Sullivan said Tuesday, saying it makes it nearly impossible "to then think easily about how to pursue the other diplomatic initiatives with him”.

However, despite the United States' vocal opposition to the “brutal violence” used by Assad against his own people, the Obama administration has yet to call for the Syrian president to step down.

Reporters at the briefing called Sullivan out repeatedly on this double standard, asking why the U.S. doesn’t intervene in Syria, as it has in Libya.

“We’ve had 40 days of demonstrations in Syria. It took a week in Egypt before the President said the transition starts now. It took a week in Libya before there was a resolution at the UN. Why is it taking 40 days for any sort of talk about any kind of action to actually take place?” asked one journalist.

Sullivan disputed the journalist's claim, saying that “the United States responded swiftly and unequivocally to the violence in Syria, to condemn in the strongest possible terms, to call for the protection of and respect for the rights of the people of Syria, to end the violence, the brutal crackdowns, the arbitrary arrests, the detentions, the torture, and all the rest of it."

The director of policy planning stressed that the condemnation "happened immediately, and it has been the consistent and unequivocal position of the United States to maintain that line throughout."

Sullivan added that the U.S. has worked with and consulted members of the international community about the situation in Syria, and that this "began almost immediately upon the initiation of this violence."

He said that the U.S. is "considering, as we have been, policy options that can help support an outcome that involves the respect of the rights of the Syrian people and an end to the violence in Syria."

The reporters at the briefing were not satisfied with Sullivan's response, with another journalist asking “how many people have to die before all of a sudden, it’s at the point where you have to do something like what you did in Libya, which is to say stop the killing?”

Sullivan responded that the current U.S. courses of action are diplomatic and financial options, adding that the United States condemns the Syrian government's actions "in the strongest possible terms." He reiterated the United States' cooperation with the international community in making it clear that the Syrian government's repression of its people is "unacceptable to rights-respecting nations everywhere”.

A third reporter asked Sullivan if he believed Assad has lost his legitimacy as Syria's leader. The director of policy planning spoke out against the Syrian leadership, saying the U.S. administration "strongly opposes President Assad and the Syrian government, the actions that they’ve taken against their citizens, the attacks on civilians in many cities around the country, the arbitrary arrests, the detentions, the torture, as well as the continued destabilizing behavior in the region, including support to terrorist groups and terrorism."

Sullivan reiterated that the United States has already called on Assad to change his course of action, saying that the future of Syria lays in the hands of its people. He spoke out against Assad's government, saying it "is clear is that the way they are acting right now is not consistent with the way that a responsible government acts against its own citizens or in connection with its international obligations".

The U.S. Administration has evacuated non-emergency personnel and family members of diplomats – but the American Embassy in Damascus will continue functioning. Sullivan stressed that the U.S. is in close contact with both the ambassador to Syria as well as the Syrian Embassy in Washington.

He refused to speculate on the effectiveness of possible U.S. sanctions against Syria.
“The notion of targeted sanctions aimed at those who are responsible for perpetrating this violence can sharpen the choice for those people and can sharpen the choice for the regime," Sullivan said.

He said that the purpose of the sanctions is to "send a clear message to the targets of the sanctions and to leave them with a clear choice and to make them understand that there are costs, specific costs, related to this action."

However, he made clear that there was no way of knowing if sanctions would be effective in stymieing government crackdowns in Syria, but said that sanctions could serve as an additional and viable tool that could be utilized against Syria.

The Turkish newspaper Sabah reported that CIA chief Leon Panetta made a confidential 5-day trip to Ankara last month to discuss regional unrest with Turkish officials as well as, reportedly, the possibility of a regime change in Syria.

No official sources were mentioned in the report, and, on the record, Sullivan said that the State Department prefers to “avoid speculating on future hypothetical scenarios in Syria, chiefly because the immediate challenge before us is so great, and that challenge is to deal with the ongoing brutal crackdown of Syrian citizens by the Syrian government."

Sullivan concluded by saying that the U.S. is currently focusing its policy on what is currently taking place on the ground in Syria.