Inter Press Service
After tiptoeing toward demanding the ouster of Bashir Al-Assad over the last several months, U.S. President Barack Obama finally jumped over the line on August 18 with his first explicit call for the Syrian president to resign.
"The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside."
Obama's statement was followed by the imposition of sweeping economic sanctions, including a freeze on all Syrian state assets under U.S. jurisdiction and a total ban on U.S. companies and citizens conducting any business with Damascus.
Because U.S. commercial relations with Syria are negligible, however, administration officials said they hoped Washington's latest steps will be replicated by the European Union (EU), whose economic ties with Damascus – particularly in the energy field — are far more significant, when its senior diplomatic officials meet in Brussels Friday.
For their part, European leaders echoed Obama's demand shortly after the White House released his statement. "The EU has repeatedly emphasised that the brutal repression must be stopped…," said the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
"The Syrian leadership, however, has remained defiant. This shows that the Syrian regime is unwilling to change…," she went on. "The EU notes the complete loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people and the necessity for him to step aside."
Yet a third statement was issued jointly by British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in which they called on Assad "to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside…"
The co-ordinated statements, as well as the EU's anticipated sanctions, appeared to be the fruit of an intense diplomatic campaign orchestrated by Washington over the past month to pressurise Assad into either halting the violent repression of his security forces against largely peaceful demonstrations across most of Syria or stepping down.
That repression, which was condemned in a UN Security Council statement earlier this month, has resulted in the deaths of some 2,000 people and the detention of more than 10,000 others over the five months since major protests against the regime first began, according to local and human-rights groups.
"This has been in the works for some time, with the U.S. playing the role of choirmaster," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, about Washington's latest efforts to rally international support behind the call for Assad to step down.
"While the sanctions are virtually meaningless on the American side, (Secretary of State Hillary) Clinton has done her homework and gotten the Europeans on board. If the Europeans and the Turks join on energy sanctions, that could have a profound psychological effect on Syrians who have remained loyal to the regime," he told IPS.
Since April, both the U.S. and the EU have imposed sanctions, including asset freezes, against key members of the Assad regime, including Assad himself, and its most influential supporters. They have also worked together in a number of multilateral fora, including the Security Council, to both isolate Damascus diplomatically and shine a harsh spotlight on its repression.
Until August 18, however, they had declined to call explicitly for Assad to step down for a variety of reasons, including a combination of hopes that he would follow through on his many promises to carry out far-reaching reforms and of fears that his departure would set the stage for even greater bloodshed and possibly sectarian civil war.
Despite constant pressure from neo-conservatives and other pro-Israel hawks who have long had Assad in their gun sights due to his support for Hizbollah and Hamas and close ties to Iran, the administration also resisted taking a harder public line against Assad for fear that doing so would make it politically more difficult for other key powers, notably Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, to move against him while making it easier for Assad to depict the opposition as being manipulated by Washington.
"There was legitimate hesitation about getting too far out in front lest regime change in Syria be seen as a specifically U.S. project, which would not be helpful to oppositionists inside Syria," said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst teaching at Georgetown University.
But recent statements by the leaders of all three countries expressing exasperation with the continuing repression apparently encouraged Obama to take the leap.
In particular, Saudi King Abdullah's angry August 8th appeal for Assad to "stop the killing machine" – as well as his recall, along with those of several other Gulf leaders, of his ambassador in Damascus – and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's comparison this week of Assad to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi were cited by senior administration officials as key indicators of a sufficient international consensus to warrant the administration's latest move."You know, it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," Clinton said August 15th. But "if Turkey says it, if King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it."
Now that it has been said, however, it remains unclear what happens next. Landis and other experts stressed that sweeping economic sanctions of the kind being imposed by western powers this week would not necessarily be sufficient to bring about the regime's collapse.
"We can't predict how long this transition will take," admitted one senior official who briefed reporters after Obama's announcement. "Nothing about it is likely to be easy. But we're certain that Assad is on the way out."
Indeed, independent experts predicted a long struggle that could increase the bloodshed and quite possibly precipitate a civil war.
"The regime seems to have the willpower, incentive, and means to stick around for a while," according to David Lesch, a Middle East expert at Trinity University in Texas, writing August 18th in foreignpolicy.com.
"None of this changes the fact that the Syrian opposition is extremely young and extremely fragmented, and the Syrian regime is united and has the military behind it," said Landis, who publishes the much-read 'syriacomment.com' blog. "Its firepower remains as strong as it was yesterday, and the opposition's firepower has not improved because of this."
"Ultimately, if (the latest measures) don't work in causing defections within the military and the business elite, then it becomes a military problem, and you're on a slippery slope. This is what happened in Iraq; this is what happened in Libya," he noted.
Pillar also predicted a "long and turbulent process," noting that the opposition to the regime "has not yet erected credible structures that could be the basis for assuming power in the foreseeable future."
"I think Assad's days are numbered, but one ought to be concerned about just how long and difficult a process it will be before there's anything remotely resembling stability in Syria," he told IPS.
"It is hard to conceive of an incentive for Assad himself or other insiders in the regime to voluntarily relinquish power no matter how difficult a squeeze the sanctions have placed on them and on Syria as a whole," he added.
What he called the "likely coming conflict in Syria" could have a "very strong sectarian dimension, given that an Alawite-dominated regime will be replaced by what almost certainly will be a Sunni- dominated regime." That, in turn, could exacerbate sectarian animosities and tensions across the region, he noted.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org).