Two GOP senators opened another line of criticism of President Barack Obama's approach to the Middle East on Thursday, this time calling on the administration to more strongly criticize the Syrian government for its deadly crackdown on popular demonstrations and begin engaging the Syrian opposition.
Government violence against protesters in Syria is escalating, with security forces reportedly killing 15 people on Wednesday during a raid on a mosque in the southern city of Deraa. Some reports put the night's death toll at 37 or more. The State Department put out a statement condemning the deaths and issued a 90-day travel alert on Thursday that warned Americans about the violence surrounding the protests.
"The United States is deeply troubled by violence and civilian deaths in Dara'a at the hands of security forces. We are concerned by the Syrian Government's use of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests in Dara'a to hinder the ability of its people to freely exercise their universal rights. We condemn these actions and extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who have been injured or lost their lives. We call on the Syrian Government to exercise restraint and refrain from violence against peaceful protestors," The statement read.
But Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) want to know if the Obama administration is reaching out to Syrian opposition leaders and offering them support, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
"The Syrian people must know that the United States stands with them against the brutal Assad regime. We can ill afford another timid embrace of a democratic uprising," the senators said in a Thursday statement. "We urge the President, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Ford to publicly condemn the murders committed by the Assad dictatorship and to demonstrate their support for the Syrian people."
By invoking Ambassador Robert Ford, Kyl and Kirk are calling for the administration to make good on its argument that the United States needed an ambassador in Damascus to have maximum influence with the Syrian government. Kyl and others Republicans held up the Ford nomination for 10 months because they saw the appointment of any ambassador as a reward to the Syrian regime, and they wanted the administration to more clearly spell out its Syria policy.
The president used a recess appointment for Ford to circumvent the Senate confirmation process. Kyl and Kirk now want Ford to use his perch to condemn the Syrian regime's crackdown.
"Ambassador Ford should begin a sustained campaign of outreach from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to the Syrian opposition movement," they said.
The Syrian government and the U.S. embassy in Syria have never been close: An internal report last April stated that the access of embassy officials to those inside the regime is scarce. This makes the danger for Americans in Syria even graver.
It is still unclear who has organized the demonstrations in Syria, so the Obama administration may find it difficult to engage with opposition figures, even if it wanted to.
Pressure on the administration to get tough with the Syrian regime is growing. The Washington Post printed an editorial today that called on Obama to demand an investigation into the killings in Deraa and tighten sanctions on Damascus.
"After Wednesday's massacre, Syrians are likely to feel still angrier - but they also will be watching the response of the outside world," the editorial stated. "That's why it is essential that the United States and Syria's partners in Europe act quickly to punish Mr. Assad's behavior. Verbal condemnations will not be enough."
UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, the office of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney put out the following strongly worded statement on the violence in Syria:
The United States strongly condemns the Syrian government’s brutal repression of demonstrations, in particular the violence and killings of civilians at the hands of security forces. We reject the use of violence under any circumstances. We are also deeply troubled by the arbitrary arrests of human rights activists and others. Those responsible for the violence must be held accountable. The United States stands for a set of universal rights, including the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and believes that governments must be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people. We call on the Syrian government to exercise restraint and respect the rights of its people and call on all citizens to exercise their rights peacefully.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.