The White House is considering new sanctions against Syria amid a crackdown by that country’s government against pro-democracy demonstrators.
Syria is one of only four countries on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List and is already subject to heavy sanctions, limiting U.S. options.
As a result, new sanctions are expected to focus on the assets of Syrian officials close to President Bashar al-Assad. Such a strategy would mimic actions taken by the U.S. against Libyan dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Asked Monday about possible sanctions against individuals in the regime, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was looking at targeted sanctions.
“Again, targeted – you can parse that – but targeted sanctions,” he said.
The administration imposed a similar strategy with Libya, said Richard Sawaya, director of USA Engage, which promotes alternatives to unilateral U.S. sanctions. He also noted that Iran sanctions legislation approved by Congress in 2010 targeted individuals in Iran.
The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the White House is drafting an executive order empowering the president to freeze the assets of senior Syrian officials from doing any business in the United States. Such a move would have a limited effect in the U.S., but could be used to pressure other government to take the same action.
Pressure has built on the White House to respond more forcefully to Syria late last week after Assad’s regime ramped up its crackdown against those protesting for reforms.
According to reports from Syria, government forces killed more than 100 people over the weekend and arrested many more. Reports on Monday indicated an escalation; The New York Times reported that tanks had entered the city of Dara’a.
Republicans have criticized President Obama, calling his approach to turmoil in the Middle East inconsistent.
The U.S. took part in military strikes against Libya, but has engaged only in diplomacy so far with Syria, a country closer to the heart of the Middle East that shares a border with Israel. Under Obama, the U.S. has sought engagement with Assad, who some have seen as a potential supporter of reform.
“President Obama should immediately recall the ambassador that he sent to Syria and move to invoke additional economic sanctions,” likely GOP presidential contender Tim Pawlenty said Friday in a statement.
The former Minnesota governor said Obama should instruct the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to call a special Security Council meeting to condemn the Syrian government.
Carney said having an ambassador in Syria has been useful “precisely because we can communicate directly what our positions and views are.”
He also defended the U.S. policies toward Syria and Libya, which he described as a “unique situation” that was different from what the U.S. faces with Syria.
“We had large portions of the country that were out of the control of Moammar Gadhafi,” Carney said. “We had a Gadhafi regime that was moving against its own people in a coordinated military fashion and was about to assault a very large city on the promise that it would show it, the regime, would show that city and its residents no mercy.
“We had an international consensus to act. We had the support of the Arab League to act in a multilateral fashion. And we supported that move to save the lives of the people of Misurata and elsewhere in Libya.
“So Libya was a unique situation,” Carney concluded. “However, we continue to look for ways and are pursuing a range of possible policy options, including targeted sanctions, to respond to the crackdown in Syria and to make clear that this behavior is unacceptable.”
Few if any U.S. companies are still doing business with Syria, which could put a limit on the effect of any U.S. sanctions, said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
“For the most part, companies doing business there pretty much unilaterally decided to get out,” he said.
Carney said sanctions “can put pressure on governments and regimes to change their behavior,” but also acknowledged that Syria already is under “some significant sanctions.”