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Will Assad Bow to Allied Pressure?

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
August 19, 2011


Syrian security forces arrested more than three-hundred people (Bloomberg) and reportedly killed several more August 19, only a day after the United States, Canada, and European allies called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. President Barack Obama also ordered the freezing of Syrian assets within U.S. jurisdiction and banned imports of Syria oil in addition to other sanctions.

Obama's statement came after months of protests against Assad's regime that have resulted in a crackdown the UN human rights commissioner called crimes against humanity (al-Jazeera). More than three hundred and fifty pro-democracy protesters have died since August 1, the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, and more than eighteen hundred protesters  have been killed (Economist) this year. The United Nations is dispatching a humanitarian mission to Syria (BBC) this weekend to assess the situation and the UN human rights commissioner pressed the Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (al-Jazeera).

The Obama administration had been criticized for failing to respond more robustly to a situation in Syria that has raised concern regionally and internationally both about the country's strengthening ties with Iran and about the possibility of destabilizing sectarian splits within Syria as well. But the effectiveness of increased sanctions and calls to step aside are a subject of debate, given Assad's continued intransigence. Despite increased diplomatic isolation, Assad has feinted over the past months with pledges of reform while acting with growing brutality; on August18, he told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon military operations had stopped (Telegraph) even as ten people were killed.

Some experts applauded the tougher stance against Syria. In Washington, the administration's announcement was greeted with notable bipartisan support (Politico), which has been in short supply as the 2012 presidential election year swings into view. Still, many experts were skeptical about its likely effectiveness. While it will boost the opposition's morale, says CFR's Elliot Abrams, "the statement  must be followed by actions to weaken the regime. Sanctions on oil exports would be fastest and best, and require the EU to act." Syria expert Andrew Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, argues that the call for Assad to step down "will be effective in marshaling concerted multilateral pressure, which historically works best in getting Assad to move," referring to Assad's withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005.

Others warned that the calls for Assad to step down will be counterproductive and could strengthen his hand. "In Syrian eyes, he will be seen as the leader that defies the 'Great Satan.'" says CFR's Ed Husain. "Worse, a weak and divided Syrian opposition movement will now be presented as 'American stooges.'" In the National Journal, Yochi Dreazen comments on the "limited leverage" the United States and its allies have over the Assad government. And, citing the case of Libya, Marc Lynch notes that the Arab upheavals of the past year demonstrate "the limits of American influence (Foreign Policy) and control over events or other regional actors. It most certainly proves that firm presidential rhetoric is not enough to tip either the internal or the international diplomatic balance."



U.S. calls for Syria's Assad to step down can only be realized if combined with stronger measures to forge a diplomatic coalition and drive a wedge between Assad and his supporters, says CFR's Robert Danin.

Obama's call for Assad's ouster and the decision to foster regime change (Daily Beast) with tougher sanctions came slowly--but will push the Syrian people a step closer to freedom, says Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution.

During the Arab Spring, Obama seemed to outsource much of his Syria policy to Ankara. But with Erdogan having proved unable to convince the Syrian dictator to reform as planned, Obama must now formulate his own plans (Foreign Affairs), says Foundation for Defense of Democracies fellow Tony Badran.