As the uprising in Syria continues to grow despite a brutal crackdown by the Assad regime, there are signs that the Obama Administration plans to switch gears. In his address on the Middle East on Thursday, President Obama issued his first public comments on Syria since the uprising began in March, condemning the massacre of peaceful protesters and calling on President Bashar al-Assad to either lead a transition of power or step down. Yet the notion that Assad could be a reformist and usher in a democratic transition, once a cherished assumption of engagement with the regime in Damascus, belies reality. On Friday, only a day after Obama's remarks, over twenty people were killed as thousands took to the streets throughout Syria, clearly demonstrating that the regime has no intention of ending its brutal repression. In fact, the Assad regime and its cronies have already signaled that this is an existential fight for survival. But it is a fight they are losing, as the U.S., France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all slowly accepted that the regime is tottering. It is now time to reset U.S. policy on Syria by calling on Assad to step down immediately.
By stating that Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead in Syria, President Obama would be signaling that the "devil we know" logic is unsustainable for U.S. policy toward the new Middle East, a reset in itself. Similar to previous statements made to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Colonel Qaddafi, calling on Assad to step down immediately would place the United States on the side of the vocal and large opposition in Syria. The United States would demonstrate to the Arab world that longtime allies and tolerable adversaries alike cannot reign with impunity and defy the legitimate desires of its peoples. A call for President Assad to step down would also rebut the emerging conventional wisdom that the U.S., along with unlikely bedfellows in Iran and Israel, quietly desires the survival of the regime in Damascus.
At the same time, the United States must continue exerting tangible pressure on the Assad regime. Coordinated sanctions and asset freezes on key regime officials and Assad himself by both the U.S. and the European Union will be significant and could alter Assad's calculus in the days and weeks ahead. Despite expected Russian and Chinese intransigence, the U.S. should support efforts by the United Kingdom and France to put forward a resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the Assad regime and calling for an ICC investigation into the regime's crimes against humanity. International pressure in other forms, such as an assertion by the IAEA that Syria was constructing a clandestine nuclear reactor, could also pave the way for tougher action against the Syrian regime at the Security Council.
Furthermore, the Obama Administration should begin working to coordinate the next steps with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, along with other regional actors, in pressuring Assad to step down and providing aid during the post-Assad transition. With large Saudi investment in Syria and the expanding Turkish-Syrian bilateral trade relationship, both countries have the greatest economic leverage collectively to play a decisive role in coercing Assad to give up power and aiding the new Syrian government. In addition, despite the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the Syrian regime and warm ties between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Assad, both Riyadh and Ankara stand to gain in the post-Assad era, as the Middle East's landscape is reconfigured to the detriment of Iran. The likely outcome of a democratic transition of power in Syria would be the empowerment of a Sunni majority government in Damascus, which would reorient itself on a political, strategic and economic level toward the Saudis, Turks and Egyptians and away from Iran. Moreover, the fall of Assad could weaken Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon, as well as force Hamas to look elsewhere for patronage.
The influence of Saudi Arabia,Turkey, and other key states will also be crucial in averting the risk of an internecine, sectarian showdown that could spread beyond Syria into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey as well. The Syrian regime has already demonstrated it will unleash all weapons at its disposal, including exacerbating sectarian tensions between the minority Alawites and the wider Sunni population. The specter of a mass exodus of refugees from Syria into neighboring countries looms as well, with Syria's mix of Christians, Kurds, and Druze. Significant pressure on the Assad regime now and engagement with exiled Syrian opposition and leaders on the ground will be critical in reducing the coming instability.
In an interview with Seymour Hersh in early 2010, President Assad stated, "Bush gave Obama this big ball of fire, and it is burning, domestically and internationally...Obama, he does not know how to catch it." In his quick recalibration of U.S. foreign policy toward the Arab world, Obama has clearly caught it. The ball of fire, though, is now Syria, and the U.S. has a critical opportunity to dispense with Assad once and for all.