By Lauren R. Dudley

The increasing unrest in Syria has prompted calls for U.S. and international action.  The United Nations (“U.N.”) has reported that thousands have been killed or wounded since the Syrian government began suppressing peaceful protests in March 2011.  According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, initial protests were “local responses to specific abuses of power by Syrian officials against the general backdrop of growing economic and political discontent.  These initial protests then turned into a “countrywide uprising.”  Just this past month, the International Committee of the Red Cross was blocked from entering the town of Bab Amr.  In light of earlier U.S. and international action taken in response to the “Arab Spring,” including the military intervention in Libya, the U.S. public has been asking what can be done in response to the atrocities in Syria.

There are three broad categories of U.S. sanctions against Syria.  There are those that fall under the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act, Executive Orders from the President, and those that fall under the USA PATRIOT Act.  The Obama Administration has not made any public indications of military intervention.  There has, however, been an expansion of U.S. sanctions against Syria and an advocacy of further sanctions.  Most recently, the President issued Executive Order 13582, which, among other things, prohibits the transfer of property in the United States to the government of Syria, new investment in Syria, and the importation of petroleum products from Syria into the United States.  There are a few other actions that the Administration has undertaken.  The Department of State closed the U.S. embassy in Syria because of safety issues in the country.  Additionally, the United States has voted in favor of draft U.N. Security Council Resolutions on the issue of Syria, Security Council resolutions that China and Russia have vetoed.

The U.S. Congress has also taken some action in reaction to the events in Syria.  In the U.S. House of Representatives, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be marking up H.R. 2106, which is meant “To strengthen sanctions against the Government of Syria, to enhance multilateral commitment to address the Government of Syria’s threatening policies, to establish a program to support a transition to a democratically-elected government in Syria, and for other purposes.”  The Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia also held a hearing on December 14, 2011 titled “Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy toward the Evolving Situation in Syria.”

In early March 2012 the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing titled “Syria: The Crisis and Its Implications” where the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and the U.S. Ambassador to the Syrian Arab Republic served as witnesses.  Additionally, the Committee unanimously passed S. Res. 379, “An original resolution condemning violence by the Government of Syria against the Syrian people.”  This resolution “condemns” the actions of the Syrian government and “urges” the international community to hold the Syrian government accountable for any crimes against humanity or other violations of human rights.

There have been a number of bills proposed in the U.S. Congress, with varying purposes.  The Congressional Research Service has divided the actions of Congress and the content of its bills into three broad views.  The first supports U.S. confrontation with the Syrian government with regime change as the policy goal.  The second view is hesitant to this former view because of a fear of an increase in instability in the region in the event of confrontation and/or a regime change.  The third view supports a gradual approach of increasing multilateral condemnation and economic pressure against Syria.  Each of these views is evident in the numerous bills that have been proposed in both Houses of Congress.

There are still many military and diplomatic options that can be carried out by the U.S. Administration, the U.S. Congress, or a combination of both bodies.  With regard to many of the uprisings in the Middle East, the doctrine of the responsibility to protect has been cited as one encouraging U.S. intervention.  Under the responsibility to protect doctrine, each country has the responsibility to protect its populations and the international community has the “responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means” to protect populations from crimes against humanity.  U.N. Secretary-General, Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, ¶ 1, U.N. Doc. A/63/677 (Jan. 12, 2009).  However, if the U.S. government decides to react, it will likely need the support of the international community because, as admitted by Senator Kerry at the hearing last week, “America has little direct leverage on Syria.”