By Robert P. Casey Jr.
Scores have been killed in Hama, Syria, in recent days. Despite a sustained assault by government forces, Syrians continue to demonstrate in the thousands — a testament to their courage, their cause, and their desire for the most basic elements of human rights and human dignity. The horror taking place in Syria has led me and others in the Senate to conclude that this regime is not capable of real reform. It has lost all legitimacy. We must be direct and unequivocal in our message to the dictator of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad must step down. The Syrian people should not have to bear the brutality of this regime any longer.
Nor should Syrians outside that country suffer from the terrible reach of this regime. Sakher Hallak visited the United States in May to attend a medical conference. Sakher, the brother of a naturalized American citizen from Syria who is a respected oncology researcher, disappeared upon his return. His wife contacted authorities, who confirmed that he was in their custody and said that he would be released shortly. The next day, Sakher’s wife and daughter were interviewed by authorities, who again said that he would be released.
Two days later, Sakher’s mutilated body was discovered in a village about 12 miles south of Aleppo, the city in northern Syria where he was from. Several bones were broken. Syrian authorities have denied Sakher was ever in their custody and said they found his body in a ditch by the side of a road.
Sakher was not a political activist. He was not involved in the demonstrations. His sole “offense” appears to be that he attended a conference and visited his brother in the United States.
Assad has ruled Syria by force and repression since 2000, following the precedent set by his father. Syrians have been protesting the regime since March, when government authorities arrested 15 schoolchildren in the city of Daraa for spray painting anti-government slogans. These children were reportedly tortured while in custody, and authorities resorted to force when their parents and others in their community called for their release. Within a week, police had killed 55 people.
The world has watched as the violence has mounted through the spring and summer, as Assad’s government tries to hold on to power by force.
Amid Assad’s campaign of terror, we cannot forget his support for terrorism abroad. Assad’s fall could have significant ramifications across the region: It would weaken Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which would no longer have a foothold in Damascus. It would reduce the strength of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which continues to stockpile weapons that it receives from Syria. And it would limit Hamas’s ability to conduct terrorist operations in Gaza.
Our allies in the Arab League and in Turkey could play a critical role in pressuring Assad — they have economic and diplomatic ties with Syria that the United States does not. Congress and the administration should make efforts to leverage these relationships for a comprehensive regional approach to the crisis in Syria. We should also applaud our allies who have rejected the Assad regime.
Meanwhile, the United States should continue to pursue a resolution at the U.N. Security Council condemning the Syrian government’s behavior. Last week’s statement by the council was a positive step but should be bolstered by a strong resolution.
We must also continue to pursue efforts that constrict the regime’s ability to conduct business abroad. The European Union announced a freeze on Syrian assets last week and travel bans on five more military and government officials. The international community must also be willing to examine expanded sanctions on the banking and energy sectors.
Our diplomats, led by Ambassador Robert Ford, have pursued American interests and values abroad. Ford’s recent trip to Hama, in which he met with Syrian citizens and expressed support for their right to peacefully demonstrate, underscored that the most basic American value, the right of democratic representation, is at stake in Syria.
The number of Syrians killed in pursuit of democratic government and basic human dignities since this spring has by some estimates reached 2,000. This does not include those who have been tortured and survived. We honor the memory of Sakher Hallek and hundreds of others by supporting democratic change in Syria.
The writer, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian affairs.