With President Obama's call on Bashar al-Assad to step aside, Syria becomes the third Arab country his administration has targeted for regime change this year. Having started his presidency seeking conciliation with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Assad, Obama has become the champion of their removal, part of a larger regional approach toward democratic change.
Forcing Assad to step down, however, will be difficult. In Egypt, the words of the United States carried significant weight. But in Syria, as in Libya, those calls will have little resonance and may be manipulated to bolster support for a regime that champions itself the last bastion of Arab nationalism and anti-Western imperialism.
Sanctions against Syria's oil industry will inflict pain and demonstrate U.S. hostility toward the regime. But just as a decade of oil sanctions on Iraq did little to weaken Saddam Hussein's grip, so too may oil sanctions harm innocent Syrians without weakening Assad's brutal grip.
Only steps that target the key regime pillars will successfully bring Assad down. One pillar, the military, is presumably off the administration's table, given present military engagement in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Other regime pillars --the ruling Alawite minority, the Damascus and Aleppo merchant classes, and Syria's sizable Christian minority--do not necessarily like Assad. But they fear the uncertainty of the aftermath should Assad and his Alawite cronies depart. So do many in Washington and in the region.
A more effective approach to regime change would be to apply stronger carrots and sticks to drive a wedge between Assad and these core constituents. Some thirty-two Syrian and Iranian businessmen and entities have been designated from the U.S. financial system. A start, perhaps. Better would be tightly focused and more comprehensive sanctions targeting Syria's banking industry, depriving the Sunni business community of access to capital. This should be combined, as an incentive for the merchant classes to break with Assad, with the message that these restrictions will be removed once Assad leaves.
So far, the Obama administration has targeted Assad and six other top Syrian officials with financial sanctions. But to apply greater heat, Assad and his top henchmen should be threatened both with prosecution within international fora for their savage brutality against the Syrian people, and with internationally coordinated financial-asset seizures. Such threats must be amplified by the message that other top regime figures will be similarly targeted soon unless they break from Assad.
Finally, the international community must convey conciliatory messages to Syria's varied minority groups--especially the Alawites--that they will be protected, not persecuted, in post-Assad Syria. Carefully orchestrated international diplomacy is required for such a call to be effective. A Syrian Contact Group, analogous to the diplomatic grouping for Libya, should be established immediately. This would coalesce key regional constituents--Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab League--with members of the international community. This group could then effectively engage the Syrian opposition and prepare a serious foundation for a political transition.
Obama has now solidly positioned the United States against the Assad regime with strong rhetoric and a few important symbolic measures. It will take a lot for Assad to step down. Only with active diplomacy and sustained follow through does the newly stated American objective have a chance at being realized.