Engage the Syrian People - Not the Regime

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Despite a vicious crackdown by Bashar al Assad's forces over the past week, the popular uprising in Syria has not been extinguished - a remarkable testament to the courage and determination of the Syrian people. In the face of tanks, snipers and heavy artillery, and even after suffering more than 2,000 deaths, enormous numbers of demonstrators continue to take to the streets demanding their freedom.

The Syrian revolt is an important part of the broader Arab Spring that is transforming the Middle East, and U.S. policy must transform with it. After months of disappointing statements urging Assad to "reform," the Obama administration has begun to align itself with the Syrian people against the dictatorship that is brutally assaulting them. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with a group of Syrian opposition leaders and later stated bluntly that Assad has lost "all legitimacy to govern Syria."

Now the protesters who are under renewed assault need to know that the full moral and diplomatic weight of the U.S. is behind them, and that we are doing everything we can to mobilize the world to their side.

First, President Obama should finally say unequivocally that Assad must go. The administration should also redouble efforts to persuade key countries and companies to ratchet up the pressure on Assad - in particular by sanctioning the Syrian energy sector and by seeking tough action at the United Nations Security Council. A binding resolution condemning the regime's human rights abuses and imposing sanctions directly on Assad and his lieutenants is now critical.

We should also work with Syria's neighbors, especially Turkey, to ensure that humanitarian aid immediately reaches Syrians in cities like Hama and Deir Al Zour, where the regime is attempting to strangle the population by cutting off electricity, water and other basic services.

Congress has a role to play too. In September, the Senate will again consider whether to confirm a U.S. ambassador to Damascus.

When the Obama administration first announced its intention to send an ambassador to Syria in early 2010, nearly five years after our last ambassador was withdrawn, I was among those critical of the decision.

The nominee, Robert Ford, was one of our most talented foreign service officers. But I felt that dispatching an ambassador to Damascus would be a mistake given Assad's failure to alter any of his outrageous policies that had undermined our bilateral relations - sheltering and sponsoring terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas; facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, where they killed U.S. troops; interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs; and blatantly violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by building a nuclear reactor with North Korean help.

In the face of Senate opposition to Mr. Ford's nomination, President Obama last December exercised his constitutional prerogative to send him to Damascus with a recess appointment. That appointment expires at the end of this year - hence the administration's decision to renominate him.

This time, I believe the Senate should quickly vote to confirm Mr. Ford as our top diplomat in Damascus. Here are my reasons.

While the Obama administration originally envisioned Amb. Ford's primary purpose as engagement with the Syrian regime, that is no longer the case. Rather than being an envoy to Assad, Mr. Ford is now first and foremost our ambassador to the Syrian people and a bridge to the democratic transition they demand. This is a role for which Mr. Ford - an innovative and tough diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East - is uniquely well-suited.

The ambassador's important and powerful visit last month to the city of Hama - where peaceful protesters had seized control, but where Syrian forces now are engaged in a gruesome campaign of violence - was an example of the kind of forward-leaning, gutsy diplomacy that our Syria policy now needs. It was also a powerful reminder that, while we cannot dictate the outcome of the struggle in Syria, U.S. leadership is pivotal-and Amb. Ford provided it.

In the weeks ahead, I am hopeful that the ambassador will find other ways to demonstrate increased U.S. solidarity with the Syrian people, including by visiting other areas where protesters are under siege and in desperate need of help.

Besides confirming Amb. Ford, Congress can also impose sanctions on companies involved in the energy trade with Syria. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Mark Kirk and I recently introduced legislation to do this. By quickly taking up and passing our bill, Congress can further pressure the Assad regime and also strengthen the administration's hand in convincing our international partners that it's time to stop business as usual with Syria.

In Syria today our values and our interests are truly in alignment. The end of the Assad regime would be not only a moral victory for democracy and self-government, but a strategic turning point for the entire region, depriving Iran of its most important ally. Washington now has the opportunity to build a new bipartisan consensus about Syria. We should seize it.

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