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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.

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A clear statement from Mr. Obama might shatter this belief. It might cause Syrian generals to review their support of the government, and might cause the commercial elites of Damascus and Aleppo to begin to distance themselves from Assad, according to Ammar Abdulhamid, founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to promoting democracy in the Middle East.

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“But as long as Bashar Assad seems to be called upon to change or to lead the reform process, then his position is legitimized, and the army generals will say then why should be challenge a leader that the international community still considers somehow as legitimate despite the sanctions?” Mr. Abdulhamid said at a Carnegie Institution conference earlier this year.

In some ways Obama now may have little choice but to take this next rhetorical step. Crucial Arab nations appear increasingly alarmed by the situation and have begun issuing their own calls for action. Both the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League have expressed alarm at the extent of the Syrian violence and called on Assad to step back from the brink.

Perhaps more importantly, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has said that events in Syria are not acceptable to his country, and called for an end to “the killing machine.” In addition, the king recalled the Saudi ambassador in Damascus.

These moves by the most influential leader in the Gulf represent a major development that the US should “move quickly to exploit,” writes John Hannah, a former Bush administration national security adviser, in Foreign Policy Magazine’s “Shadow Government” blog.

Washington should be doing everything in its power to keep ratcheting up the pressure, producing a cascading series of shocks from the outside that – together with the relentless internal challenge of the protesters – seek to crack the regime as soon as possible, with the aim of short-circuiting the grinding, drawn-out escalation of brutality, death, and hatred that currently appears to be leading inexorably towards full-blown sectarian conflict and civil war,” writes Hannah.

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