It has taken longer than Syria-watchers predicted, but President Obama today finally called on Bashar al Assad to “step aside” in Syria. This is an interesting formulation that implies he could remain nominally president but allow reforms to move forward. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon seems to have also taken that line yesterday with Bashar in a phone call.
Let’s look at the options from Bashar’s perspective. Egyptian President Mubarak stepped down and now finds himself on trial. Libyan non-president Qaddafi refused to step down and now is fighting a war he is likely to lose. Yemen’s President Saleh is recovering from wounds his opponents inflicted in retaliation for his military attacks on them, but he has managed to continue to dominate Sanaa from Saudi Arabia, using his son and other loyalists as proxies. Only former Tunisian President Ben Ali is managing an untroubled, but powerless, retirement somewhere in Saudi Arabia. None of those options looks as good as “step aside,” though I have my doubts the protesters would accept Bashar remaining even nominally in power for more than a brief transition period.
President Obama also signed an executive order that
- blocks the property of the Syrian government,
- bans U.S. persons from new investments in or exporting services to Syria, and
- bans U.S. imports of, and other transactions or dealings in, Syrian-origin petroleum or petroleum products.
The trouble of course is that there is little Syrian government property in the U.S., few new investments or service exports to Syria and almost no U.S. import of Syrian oil or oil products.
For President Obama’s new rhetorical line to be effective, other countries–especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Europeans–will need to play hard ball with the Syrian regime. Both the Turks and Saudis have sounded recently as if they are willing to do that, and the Europeans in their own complicated way seem to be moving in the same direction.
Diplomacy is getting other people to do what you want them to do. As many in the blogosphere are noting, Washington’s direct influence on events in Syria is small. President Obama himself said:
The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. 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.
So that’s where the buck stops: with the Syrian people, who have shown remarkable courage and determination so far. Here they are in Aleppo yesterday: