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Should Obama call for Syria's Assad to go? And would it matter?

As the White House presses Syria to halt it's brutal repression of dissent, it is considering calling for Assad to step down. While it is not clear how effective that would be, Obama may have little choice.

By Staff writer / August 10, 2011

A supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad demonstrates in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday. The Obama administration is preparing for the first time to explicitly call for Assad to step down, officials have told the AP.

Muzaffar Salman/AP

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The Obama administration is beginning to turn up the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad in an attempt to stop the brutal tank-led repression of Syria’s civilian protest movement.

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On Wednesday the US Treasury Department announced that it has added the Commercial Bank of Syria, the nation’s largest, as well as leading cell phone operator Syriatel to its sanctions list. Any assets these institutions have in the United States will be frozen, and US banks are now banned from doing business with them.

“We are taking aim at the financial infrastructure that is helping provide support to Assad and his regime’s illicit activities,” said David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, in a statement announcing the move.

The new sanctions listing may not have a large practical effect, given that the US already severely limits economic interaction with the Assad regime. But the administration is also reportedly considering a further step: an explicit call for Mr. Assad to step down.

According to White House officials who spoke with the Associated Press, the decision to end its attempt to push the Syrian regime towards reform, and call for its end instead, is the result of the increasing ferocity of Syrian security forces towards hotbeds of opposition. More than 2,000 people have been killed in the crackdown on dissent, human rights groups say.

But would harsher words from the American president really influence Assad to resign? After all, President Obama has already said he has “lost legitimacy” as a leader, and should lead the country toward reform or get out of the way.

Assad may look at the example of, say, former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who now faces prosecution after stepping down from his post, and decide that fighting to the bitter end is the preferable option.

On Wednesday, for instance, Syrian tanks stormed two towns in the northwest of the country, near the border with Turkey – one day after Turkey, with whom Syria has had good relations, called on Assad to end civilian killings.

But according to some experts, a call from the White House for Assad to go would hasten the disintegration of his government. In this view, Syrian elites view current US sanctions as an attempt to get Syria to distance itself from Iran as much as a tool intended to end their internal crackdown.

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