Obama may Call for al-Asad to step down

President Barack Obama is seriously considering calling publicly for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to step down, according to press reports. He is said to be awaiting a briefing by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who met with al-Asad for 6 hours on Tuesday, as Aljazeera English reports:.

On Wednesday, the US slapped sanctions on Syria’s largest state-owned bank and on its major cell phone company.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council heard a chilling presentation on the massacres committed by the Syrian government against protesters, and warned Syria to stop its violent repression. Human rights groups estimate that some 2400 persons have died in the protests.

Obama’s plans to call for al-Asad to step down, if those reports are true, seem to me a bad idea. It is unwise to call for something to happen if you can’t make it happen and don’t know whether it will. If Obama calls for al-Asad to be gone, and he is still there years from now, it will just make the US look weak and ineffectual. Denouncing the Syrian strong man’s crackdowns as illegal, and imposing stronger sanctions, would be wiser.

Saudi Arabia has now been deeply critical of al-Asad, with King Abdullah calling the Baath regime “a killing machine.” Riyadh came under pressure to speak out from Sunnis, who see the Alawite-dominated Syrian state as tinged with Shiite Islam, and so view the crackdowns as a Shiite persecution of Sunnis. Likewise, Sunni revivalists are among the key constituents of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, helping to account for the increasingly strong language Turkey has used toward al-Asad. In contrast, the some 20% of Turks who are Alevi Shiites (a heterodox sect) are said to have some sympathy for Syrian Allawis (the two forms of folk Shiism are not similar in doctrine or ritual practice, however).

That leading countries in the Arab League are now denouncing al-Asad is a blow to his prestige.

But, the regime does not seem that fragile, despite the obvious determination of the protesters. There haven’t been really big demonstrations in the capital of Damascus so far. The religious minorities make up about 25 percent of the population of 22 mn., and are afraid that the opposition is heavily tinged with Sunni fundamentalism. If you add Sunni secularists, you may have a majority of the population who fear governmental change. The security and military forces have not split and continue to back the regime. Mere verbal strong-arming from Washington is unlikely to materially change the situation.

15 Responses

  1. How much would the United States take from protesters? I remember the Chicago police outside the Democratic Convention. It hasn’t gotten any better, it’s zero tolerance. If there is an insurrection does a government have a right or duty to defend it’s people and sovereignty?
    When Libya broke out, the rag tag CIA backed rebels were not to be opposed by Gadhafi? No fly zone, tie one arm behind his back, and cry foul when he tries to maintain power. It’s nuts.

    • The Libyan protests were peaceful and unarmed when Khadaffy unleashed air strikes, artillery, and tanks against them.

      The protesters took up arms in response to Khadaffy’s military assault, not vice-versa.

  2. Like King Abdullah really has any moral footing to call the Syrian Baathists “a killing machine”. Bashar al-Assad has shown he is indeed the son of Hafez though. Brutal are the Dictators. It is looking as though the west may follow if we allow further consolidation of power in the hands of the few but mighty.

  3. Professor Cole,
    While sanctions send a strong political message, do we know the economic effects yet of sanctions on the regime? I’d hate for a repeat of the ’90s where we had over a decade of sanctions on Saddam that weakened the country as a whole, but strengthened the influence of Saddam’s regime because everyone turned to it for basic provisions (at least that’s my understanding of the effects of the sanctions on Iraq). The economic pie may get smaller in Syria, but that’s no good if the pie is increasingly in the hands of al-Asad.

    • Good question.

      I’d also like to hear about the difference, if any, between sanctions while there is a strong protest/resistance movement, vs. when there is not (like in Iraq).

  4. Sheer folly. Whatever happened to noninterference in the affairs of a sovereign state?

    Besides, if Bashir falls, which is far from certain, what follows will be worse.

    • The principle of noninterference in the affairs of a sovereign state has never, since the invention of sovereignty, included restrictions on criticism, the withdrawing of ambassadors, or sanctions.

  5. I agree that the President’s plan to call for al-Asad to step down is a bad idea. In fact, for President Obama to call for any country to do anything right now is a bad idea because the USA is crumbling and needs all the help we can get. We don’t have the money or the Military to continue galavanting around the globe telling other countries what to do. We should be focused on rebuilding the USA and investing in the American people and clean green energy, and we should definitely end the wars in the Middle East.

    I know I’m a broken record on this point, but I’m sure this is how protestors of the Vietnam war must have felt for many years until that war was finally ended—the USA needs to end the pointless bankrupting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring our troops home. And we definitely must stop telling other countries what to do. We cannot and should not attempt to be the police of the world.

    • How is making statements “galavanting around the world?”

      Isn’t “use your words” what you say to a child to stop him from hitting?

  6. “If Obama calls for al-Asad to be gone, and he is still there years from now, it will just make the US look weak and ineffectual.”

    I think US is already weak and ineffectual in the middle east, so there is not much we can lose. With the Iraq war that cost trillions (of dollars) and hundreds of thousands (of lives) and gained little if any, total lack of control over Israel and the peace process, scrambling for a strategy during any new development starting from Egyptian revolution to Libyan civil war, the dysfunctional political discourse dominated by a radical minority, massive financial crisis with no viable plans, the US is neither respected nor feared any more in the world, let alone in the middle east.

  7. Riyadh came under pressure to speak out from Sunnis, who see the Alawite-dominated Syrian state as tinged with Shiite Islam, and so view the crackdowns as a Shiite persecution of Sunnis.

    Are you sure the pressure came from the Sunnis? And not from the American patrons of Israel who have offered them 60 billion worth of weapons and to train a force of 35,000 troops to ensure that what is now happening in Syria can’t happen there?

    If so, then why aren’t the Sunnis in their own country able to apply any pressure to get political accountability?

    • Saudi Arabia is happy to take our money, but they sure don’t dance to our tune.

      Oil would be a whole lot cheaper if our military aid got the House of Saud to do our bidding.

  8. Again, too little, too late.

    It’s been disheartening to watch Davutoglu and Erdogan coddle what is beyond any disputation a murderous and morally bankrupt regime. The Turks have been quite preachy the last few years, but when it comes to dealing with the malevolent regime in Damascus, a cohort of thugs that’s mowing down its own people, Ankara has remained oddly silent. Even now, Davutoglu still seems to be playing for time, hoping that Assad will have a change of heart.

    Sure.

  9. LOL – as though Assad, who’s facing an existentialist threat, will take any heed of a US President who’s become a lame duck after only 30 months in office.

  10. King Abdullah’s comments are the more significant because his was the first Saudi regime that actually favoured Syria. His influence, it was considered in the kingdom was more “Northern” because he was a Rashidi, breaking from the normal Suderi Seven policies…

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