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US, Europe Call for Syria’s Assad to 'Step Aside'

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, center, after at the end of the second day closing session of the Arab League Summit in Sirte, Libya, (file photo)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, center, after at the end of the second day closing session of the Arab League Summit in Sirte, Libya, (file photo)

The United States and its key European allies on Thursday made a coordinated call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, after he ignored appeals to end a brutal five-month crackdown on protestors.  The U.S. appeal for regime change is coupled with far-reaching sanctions against the Damascus government, including a ban on imports of Syrian oil.

President Barack Obama began the diplomatic effort with a written statement condemning the Syrian leader for “ferocious brutality” against democracy protestors, including what, he called, “disgraceful” attacks on cities like Hama and Deir al-Zour.

Mr. Obama said President Assad’s calls for dialogue and reform have “rung hollow” as he imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered his own people.  He said that for the sake of the Syrian people, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed the call in a press appearance here.

“The people of Syria deserve a government that respects their dignity, protects their rights and lives up to their aspirations," said Clinton. "Assad is standing in their way.  For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for him to step aside and leave this transition to the Syrians themselves.

Soon after the U.S. announcement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a joint statement that by resorting to brutal military force against his own people, Mr. Assad “has lost all legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead the country.”

The Obama administration had been poised to make the call for regime change earlier this month, but reportedly delayed action pending final reform appeals to President Assad from Arab states and neighboring Turkey -- calls that went unanswered.

Secretary Clinton, who helped orchestrate the U.S.-European action, said the allies are not trying to dictate a resolution of the crisis.

“We understand the strong desire of the Syrian people that no foreign country should intervene in their struggle, and we respect their wishes," she said. "At the same time, we will do our part to support their aspiration for a Syria that is democratic, just and inclusive.”

The new sanctions announced by President Obama sharply expand on punitive measures targeted at the Syrian leader and his inner circle.  An executive order by the president freezes all Syrian government assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and it bans U.S. imports of Syrian petroleum products.  If as expected, the move is matched by the European Union on Friday, it will severely affect what has been the main driver Syria's economy.  

Syria expert Andrew Tabler of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the U.S. action makes dealings in Syrian oil politically risky for European and other companies.

“It forces a lot of their companies to make a choice," said Tabler. "Do they continue their relatively small Syrian business or purchases of Syrian crude, or do they maintain their relationship with the United States?  These kinds of sanctions push those companies into those kind of dilemmas.”

Analyst Ed Husain of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations says that calling on Mr. Assad to step down weakens opposition members who will now be seen as stooges of the United States.  He adds that Mr. Assad’s departure would trigger instability in a country that is a patchwork of ethnic alliances.

“It’s a country that is divided along sectarian lines hugely," said Husain. "And Assad’s party and Assad’s family - whether we like it [or not], it’s an ugly truth - have held that country together.  And they know if Assad falls, there will be a bloodbath between the Alawis and Druze, the other minorities as well as the Sunni majority.  And for those reasons, I think at least in the short term, Bashar al-Assad remains the least worst option.”

Omar al-Issawi, Middle East and North Africa Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch says that although his organization takes no position on the call for regime change, he hopes it will increase international pressure for accountability on Syrian human rights abuses.

“Our prime concern is for the [Syrian] regime to put an end to the very serious, grave, human rights violations that have been taking place against overwhelmingly peaceful protestors," said al-Issawi. "We hope that the authorities in Syria follow up on the declaration of President Assad yesterday, when he said military operations have stopped.”

The U.N. Human Rights Council will hold an emergency session on Syria on Monday in Geneva.  

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