The staggering death toll of 60,000 people killed during the Syrian conflict should spur Washington to re-think its approach towards ending one of the most serious humanitarian crises of today. The stalemated conflict and international impotence to prevent further deterioration have become the status quo. A diplomatic solution is unfeasible at the moment while chemical weapons use could change the calculus on foreign military intervention. To avoid such unfortunate outcome, Washington and its allies should be proactive in seizing opportunities that pressure Russia and further isolate the Assad regime.
A report commissioned by the United Nations (U.N.) High Commissioner for Human Rights revealed that 60,000 people had been killed during Syria’s ongoing civil war. While it’s likely it’s a low estimate of the actual death toll, the latest figure is a stark reminder of broader horrors unfolding within the country and the need for forcible response.
Analysts have been critical of Obama’s stance on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, which would cross a “red line” and that America would “take action.” The ambiguity in the statement has led some to argue that Washington has effectively given Assad immunity to use anything else. If Obama’s red line comment on Syria reflects a humanitarian concern and a moral responsibility to prevent further loss of life, why has he not reacted forcefully to the recent U.N. report? The current red line policy is insufficient as it does not address what happens before Assad resorts to using chemical weapons. It reflects a reactive rather than proactive approach and questionable presidential commitment to resolving the Syrian crisis.
Following in the footsteps of the House, the Senate unanimously approved last month a ban on deals between the Pentagon and Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-controlled arms export firm that has been facilitating arms shipments to the Syrian regime since the beginning of the violent crackdown 22 months ago. A proactive and coherent Syria policy, of which the red line is only one part, should start with President Obama upholding congressional decision on Rosoboronexport. This will add pressure on Assad’s main ally Russia and further isolate his regime.
Another approach that the Administration should consider is to designate for sanctions Russian banks found to be doing business with the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank and the Commercial Bank of Syria, both of which have been blacklisted by the Treasury. Unlike recent U.S. sanctions against Iran, Washington’s designations of these two banks does not permit the United States to cut off a bank that deals with them from the U.S. banking sector, even though American banks are forbidden from dealing with the blacklisted Syrian institutions. In essence, blacklisting these Russian banks will lead U.S. banks to shy away from working with them because of their dealings with the two Syrian institutions.
The Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank and the Commercial Bank of Syria have been targeted by the European Union, the Arab League, Australia and Japan. Since the Syrian public and private sector look to Russian banks to handle their foreign business, it raises the prospect for a concerted global effort to put these Russian institutions in a vulnerable position where they would reconsider their financial backing of the Assad regime.
As the conflict intensifies and humanitarian conditions worsen, the Administration has opportunities to sanction Russian entities providing weaponry and financial backing to the regime. Assad’s increased isolation will persuade a critical bloc of undecided Syrians—business owners who drive the economy, bankers who finance it, and security officials and government employees who hold maintain the authoritarian state—to turn their back on the regime and bring its swift demise so the challenging rebuilding process can begin.