US, UN poised for diplomatic assault on Syria's Assad

The US is expected to call for Bashar al-Assad to step down and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will push for International Criminal Court action against the Syrian president.

Bassem Tellawi/AP
In this photo taken on a government-organized tour, a Syrian man shouts in support of President Bashar Assad, seen on the flag, as residents cheer Syrian soldiers leaving the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 16. State-run news agency SANA said army units began withdrawing from Deir el-Zour Tuesday after ridding the city of "armed terrorist gangs" in an operation that lasted several days.

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Syria's government is set to come under diplomatic assault today as the United Nations and United States prepare to take decisive actions against the regime. The two-pronged attack comes on the heels of comments from Turkey that make clear its overtures to its neighbor are over.

Associated Press sources say that today the White House will call on Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who has presided over a brutal five-month crackdown on protesters in his country, to leave office.

The US previously said that President Assad has lost his legitimacy as a leader. The call for him to leave office would have come sooner, but Turkey, Syria's neighbor, asked for time to try to persuade Assad to reform and the US wanted to act with a global consensus against the autocrat, the AP reports.

"It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday. "OK, fine, what's next? If other people say it, if Turkey says it, if [Saudi] King Abdullah says it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it."

Despite demands over the past two weeks from the Saudis, the Arab League, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government for Syria to halt the use of violence against civilians, strikes escalated, killing hundreds more.

AP reports that yesterday Mr. Erdogan compared Assad to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, whose own crackdown on his country's protesters prompted the international community to stage a swift military intervention to prevent an expected bloodbath and to call on him to relinquish power.

But Turkey awaits regional consensus before it joins the US call for Assad to step down, a Turkish official told local newspaper Hurriyet Daily News yesterday. “If there will be call on Assad to step down, it should not be Turkey to make the call, but everyone, first of all Syrian people should say that first,” another source said.

Ankara has not indicated willingness to lead an international coalition to conduct coercive diplomacy to push drastic measures on the Syrian administration, but instead it is seeking coherence with regional countries. Along with Western actors, Turkey has been discussing the situation with regional countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Although Ankara might have not succeeded with its preventive diplomacy on Syria, since Assad has not taken steps to end the violence or implement urgent reforms, Turkey prefers diplomatic ambiguity before applying isolation policies to Damascus. A limited engagement policy could continue for the Syrian administration, the diplomatic source said.

The call for Assad to step down and the new sanctions are not likely to have much of an effect right away, US officials acknowledged to AP, but it will mark the end of American support for Assad as a possible reformer.

On Wednesday, Syria told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon that it had halted military operations against civilians who the regime continually described as "armed gangs," "foreign saboteurs," and "terrorists" throughout the uprising. However, the Local Coordination Committees, which tracks antigovernment protests, says that Syrian troops killed nine people in the city of Homs after the regime's announcement to the secretary general, MSNBC reports.

Mr. Ban is expected to suggest today that the UN Security Council refer the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court, although whether it will get there is unclear – according to MSNBC, veto-wielding members China and Russia oppose the idea.

Since Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, which gives the ICC jurisdiction, the only way its case can be brought to the ICC is through a Security Council recommendation, The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy reported this week.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay will address the council today, likely to relay evidence from their report on Syria that the regime has "committed grave violations of international human rights law."

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