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.

Muzaffar Salman/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

“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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