President Barack Obama today issued a call for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down. “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” the statement read. “His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people. We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
The White House also announced that the president signed a new executive order that freezes the assets of the Syrian government in the United States, and bans U.S. citizens from doing any business with Syria, including dealing in Syrian-sourced petroleum or petroleum products. The call for Assad to leave power, combined with these new measures targeting his regime, comes as Syria continues its campaign of violent repression, recently shelling the Mediterranean port city of Latakia and causing the flight of thousands of Palestinian refugees living there.
It also comes amid increasing criticism from others in the region. Last week, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Syria, with Saudi King Abdullah condemning the violence as “unacceptable.” On Monday, Ahmet Davotoglu, the Foreign Minister of Turkey, one of Syria’s closest trading partners, demanded that the Syrian government end its crackdown on a five-month-old uprising “immediately and unconditionally,” and warned of further steps if it did not.
While some conservatives have voiced frustration at the slow ratcheting of the Obama administration’s rhetoric against the Assad regime, it’s important to recognize that the administration’s efforts have been directed toward cultivating and strengthening international consensus against the regime’s violence and in support of Syrian demonstrators’ demands for political reform. What’s more, the administration has made clear numerous times that the United States stands with those who seek an end to authoritarian regimes. In mid-July, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford visited the embattled city of Hama, along with French ambassador Eric Chevallier in solidarity with demonstrators who had endured violent crackdowns by Syrian security forces.
But, as the president made clear before, and reiterated today, this is the Syrian peoples’ movement, not anyone else’s. “The United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” the president’s statement said. “It is up to the Syrian people to choose their own leaders, and we have heard their strong desire that there not be foreign intervention in their movement.”
In remarks following the White House statement today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “The Assad government has now been condemned by countries in all parts of the world and can look only to Iran for support for its brutal and unjust crackdown.” In the past two weeks, Secretary Clinton noted, “many of Syria’s own neighbors and partners in the region have joined the chorus of condemnation. We expect that they and other members of the international community will amplify the steps we are taking both through their words and their actions.”
Indeed, shortly after the Obama administration’s statements this morning, the European Union followed suit, calling for Assad to leave power and threatening further sanctions.
Having now made Assad’s exit the policy of the United States, it’s still unclear what tools we possess to affect this outcome beyond the additional steps taken today. The prospect of the collapse of the Assad regime clearly weighs heavily on everyone’s mind, most notably the Turkish government, which would be most severely affected by the refugee flows that would likely occur in such a scenario. The calibrated U.S. approach to the crisis in Syria is partly the result of such concerns.
The Obama administration’s slow and deliberate handling of the Syrian crisis may lack “the satisfying purity of indignation,” as President Obama put it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, but the manner in which his administration has worked with international partners in various multilateral venues represents a judicious and responsible use of U.S. power in forging a coalition to maintain pressure on the abusive Assad regime. There is frankly little the United States can do to directly impact the situation on the ground in Syria, and so the strategy is to try and create the conditions for the most positive possible outcome, while carefully guarding against the most negative.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress and the Director of Middle East Progress at the Center.