Will Obama's Call for Assad to Step Down Pack a Punch?

The U.S. and E.U. have also imposed tougher sanctions on the Syrian regime

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As anticipated, the U.S. demanded today that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down for continuing his bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Germany, France, and Britain followed suit shortly thereafter. In a statement, President Obama declared that Assad's "calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people." Both the E.U. and the U.S. slapped new sanctions on the Syrian regime as well, with Obama signing an executive order freezing government assets in the U.S. and banning Syrian petroleum imports.

The words and actions seem tougher than they have been in the past. But given that previous rounds of sanctions, talk of Assad losing his "legitimacy," and a U.N. Security Council rebuke have yet to deter the Syrian regime from launching military offensives on restive cities, should we expect today's measures to meaningfully alter the trajectory of the five-month-old uprising? To be sure, today's announcements mark the first time that the U.S. and its European allies have explicitly called for Assad to relinquish power. And, as the AP noted last week, the call signals that the Obama administration has finally given up not only on Assad as a reformer but on its earlier effort to engage Syria diplomatically despite tensions arising from Syria's close ties to Iran and Shiite militants in Lebanon. The move also comes amid mounting international pressure on the Syrian regime. On Thursday, a U.N. investigative team announced that 50 Syrian officials may have committed crimes against humanity and recommended that the Security Council consider referring these regime figures to the International Criminal Court when the decision-making body meets today in New York. A Washington Post editorial yesterday claimed that America saying Assad must go will lend much-needed moral support to the Syrian protesters and "reaffirm that America's claim to a world leadership role is different from, say, China's--that it is based in part on values and not just on self-interest."

Yet there are other reasons to believe that the calls for Assad to step down and the tougher sanctions won't have much of an impact on the Assad regime. For starters, regional heavyweights like Turkey and Saudi Arabia may have more clout with Syria than Western powers, and Turkish and Saudi Arabian officials have so far stopped short of demanding that Assad step down (they have ramped up their rhetoric against the Syrian regime, however). On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself admitted that "it's not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go," adding that "if Turkey says it, if [Saudi Arabia's] King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it." On Wednesday, Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News noted that "Ankara has not indicated willingness to lead an international coalition to conduct coercive diplomacy to push drastic measures on the Syrian administration, but instead it is seeking coherence with regional countries." That regional consensus may not coalesce for some time, if at all. In fact, Tony Badran suggested earlier this week at Foreign Affairs that the U.S. and Turkey may be working at cross purposes:

United States policy is on the verge of calling for regime change, while Turkey continues to hold out hope for a reform program led by Assad, precisely in order to preserve its own influence as an intermediary between Iran, Syria, and Washington.

What's more, it's unclear what kind of additional pressure the U.S. and its Western allies can apply should calls for Assad to step down prove ineffective. In his statement, President Obama emphasized that "the United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria," and there appears to be no appetite in the international community for a Libya-style intervention. "If Turkey and a core number of Arab countries take that next rhetorical step and call for Assad to go," U.N. Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg writes today, "it will make passing Security Council sanctions (and/or an ICC referral) much, much more likely."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.