News / Middle East

Sanctions, Pressure and Syria's Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo)

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The Obama administration says Syria would be "a better place" without leader Bashar al-Assad.  Although senior U.S. officials repeatedly have called on President Assad to stop the brutal crackdown on demonstrators, President Barack Obama has not explicitly called on him to step down.  Our correspondent reports on U.S. efforts to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian leadership.

With the Syrian government showing no signs of ending its crackdown on demonstrators, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford met with Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Thursday in Damascus.

U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland:

"He made clear, as we have publicly, repeatedly, that Syria is going to face increasing pressure if the violence doesn't end, including more economic sanctions from the U.S., and we hope, from others; that empty rhetoric isn't going to suffice," said Nuland.

Middle East political analyst Andrew Tabler of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says energy sanctions are key.

"Oil exports from Syria account for about between one-quarter and one-third of revenue, okay?  So unlike Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where the lion's share of state revenues came from oil proceeds, in Syria, it's only for one-quarter or one-third," said Tabler. "So it will cripple the regime, get it to run down its reserves and borrow more money from the bourgeoisie.  But it won't decimate the society."

Tabler says international pressure is effective, highlighting Syria's decision to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in 2005.    

"The Syrian regime does move in the face of concerted, multilateral pressure," he said. "It doesn't happen very often, but a stopped clock is right twice a day, right?  [It can work again.]"

Some analysts want to see the United States apply pressure on those who are not part of the Syrian government.  Exiled opposition member Ausama Monajed heads the Strategic Research & Communication Center in London:

"A third message should be articulated and hammered on to the Sunni business elite," said Monajed. "There is huge, huge potential for business in Syria afterward [after Bashar al-Assad and his government are out of office].  You need to play a role in the development and economic development of Syria afterward, so disassociate yourselves from the regime, and there is a future for you."

The head of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, Radwan Ziadeh, says it is important for U.S. President Barack Obama to explicitly call on Bashar al-Assad to step down.

"Seeing that will encourage also more Arabic countries and more European countries to do the same, and this is why you have such kind of international pressure," said Ziadeh. "It will encourage more army, especially more Alawite senior army officers, to defect."

Assad's family is Alawite, a religious minority in Syria.

Theodore Kattouf, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria during the Clinton administration, says President Assad will not heed calls to step down.  He says members of the Assad family are fighting for their political lives and their livelihoods.

"I'm sure Bashar watched a former ally of the United States, [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak, on a hospital bed in a cage in a courtroom," said Kattouf. "And if his spine needed any steeling [his will to remain in office needed strengthening], I'm sure that that helped to do it."

Kattouf says there are no magic spells that will cause the Assad government to collapse.  

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