“For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” US President Barack Obama said in a written statement on Thursday. Already this unequivocal call for Al Assad to step down has been met with applause by Syrian human rights groups and opposition activists who agree that the Syrian President has lost his legitimacy to rule over Syria.
Essentially however Obama and his allies would not have made the call without some degree of certainty that Al Assad was already on his way out. Al Assad, who has butchered his way through Syria in the past five months, is not likely to react to Obama’s edict except perhaps to express his derision of the American government and its allies. He may retaliate with greater force against yet another Syrian city, or he might not do anything, willing to make Western powers look silly while he clings to power. He is certainly not issuing a flight plan for a one-way trip to Tehran just yet.
The US though is confident that Al Assad has severely overplayed his hand and is indeed on his way out. A senior US official is quoted by Reuters telling reporters on a conference call that the Syrian President is “on his way out.” The US is well aware of the risks attached to having their president issuing a call for a foreign president to step down. It cannot afford for Obama to look powerless at the end of this exchange. It has taken Obama weeks to issue the call and he has no doubt consulted at length with one of Syria’s most crucial allies, Turkey.
The Turkish after goading Al Assad to put down his arms and seek a peaceful resolution for months now, have also lost patience. Serving as negotiators between the Syrian leader and the rest of the world, the Turkish as recently as this week urged Al Assad to cease all military operations in the country. Speaking on the telephone with United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, Al Assad swore piously to the UN bigwig that all military operations had indeed ceased. Human rights groups and opposition activists disagreed, doubtlessly adding to the pressure on Obama to voice the strongest possible opposition to Al Assad’s brutal military campaign against dissidents in the country. The next step, after asking Al Assad to step down, is of course to launch a UN approved military solution and force the Syrian president off his perch.
Military intervention is however extremely unlikely at the present. Nato is already stretched in Libya and yet another war may not be the best way for Obama and his allies to endear themselves to disgruntled electorates. Al Assad lacks the charisma of a Gaddafi as an “enemy number one” – it would take some effort to convince people that Al Assad is worth the cost in life and money of another war. Obama, for the moment at least appears disinclined towards bombing Al Assad out of power, saying in his statement that “nobody believes” that military action is the desired course in Syria.
Sanctions though are certainly a more popular recourse for the West against Syria. While calling for Al Assad to step down, the US also announced further economic sanctions against the Syrian regime. Obama has authorised the US government to impose tough new sanctions aimed at choking off Syrian revenue from its lucrative oil and gas exports. The authority allows the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of Syrian state-run petroleum companies in the US and bans Americans from doing business with them. The sanctions will stifle the ability of banks to finance transactions involving Syrian oil exports and will also make it challenging for companies with a large US presence, such as Shell, to continue producing crude in Syria. A shut down of Syria’s miniscule oil industry is not likely to significantly impact the price of Brent crude immediately.
On cue, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has issued a 22-page report on Syria, saying: “The mission found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity”. It accused Syria of “grossly” violating its citizens’ right to life, and accused the authorities of carrying out “numerous summary executions, including 353 named victims”. It also said members of the government security forces “posed as civilians in order to cause unrest and portray and inaccurate picture of events”.
Department of International Relations and Co-Operation spokesman Clayson Monyela says South Africa’s stance on Syria remains unchanged. South Africa, although urging Al Assad to cease military operations, has previously expressed that: “the only solution to the current crisis is through a Syrian-led political process that is inclusive, with the aim of effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the population which will allow for the full exercise of fundamental freedoms, including that of expression and peaceful assembly”.
For now, if Al Assad was deluded enough to believe that he was still in full control of his country, the call from Obama and his allies may have even him wondering if his time at the helm of the Syrian presidency has indeed expired. DM
Photo: A government loyalists holds up a picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad during a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Damascus July 11, 2011. The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned “in the strongest terms” this week’s attacks by demonstrators against the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus. Picture taken July 11, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer
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