Escalating its rhetoric against Bashar al-Assad, the White House declared Tuesday that the Syrian president had “lost his legitimacy” but declined to call explicitly for his resignation or removal.
The statement, which echoed similar remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday, followed what appeared to be orchestrated attacks by pro-Assad demonstrators on the U.S. and French embassy compounds in Damascus Monday.
The attacks, which were condemned “in the strongest terms” by the U.N. Security Council Tuesday, were apparently motivated by the visits late last week of the U.S. and French ambassadors to Hama, which has become a major center of anti-government protests that have roiled the country for nearly four months.
“President Assad has lost his legitimacy,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“President Assad had an opportunity to lead this [democratic] transition, and we have always said he should lead or leave. He had that opportunity, and he passed it up,” Carney said, adding that the Syrian leader was “not indispensable.”
The tougher rhetoric, as well as Ambassador Robert Ford’s visit to Hama, comes amid growing pressure on the administration, notably from neoconservative sectors and some liberal hawks, such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to take stronger measures against the regime.
No one is calling for direct military action, particularly at a time when both the general public and even Republican members of Congress are showing distinct signs of war-weariness.
But the continuing cycle of protest and repression that has taken at least 1,400 lives since March is fueling calls for such steps as recalling Ford to Washington, referring Assad to the International Criminal Court, and imposing sweeping sanctions to cripple the country’s already struggling economy.
In terms of concrete action, the administration of President Barack Obama, working closely with the European Union (EU), has so far focused on censuring the regime’s repression in multilateral forums, including the Security Council, and imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Assad himself, as well as other key individuals in his inner circle and the regime.
But this has been deemed far too weak by the critics, particularly neoconservatives and other hawks, such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who have long accorded a high priority to regime change in Damascus due to its alliance with Iran and historic backing for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, among other issues.
“This is an easy call: We have a chance to eliminate one of America’s worst enemies in the region – the linchpin of Iran’s alliances and terrorist apparatus,” wrote Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a group closely associated with Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, in this week’s edition of the neoconservative Weekly Standard.
“We have a chance to traumatize Tehran: The world will look a lot more precarious to supreme leader Ali Khamenei and a lot more hopeful to the millions behind Iran’s pro-democracy Green Movement if Bashar al-Assad goes down,” he added, urging that, in addition to imposing tougher economic sanctions and enhancing the opposition’s communications capacities, Washington do its utmost to persuade Turkey to turn decisively against the regime.
Analysts at the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a spin-off of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have also been calling for stronger measures, particularly in pressuring the Syrian economy.
“If the United States and its European allies really seek to force the Assad regime to lead a democratic transition and facilitate Assad’s eventual exit form the political scene, they will need to target Syrian energy to deprive the regime of vital foreign exchange earnings and curtail economic bailouts from Arab Gulf monarchies that historically have prevented the regime from instituting genuine change,” WINEP’s Andrew Tabler told a congressional human rights commission Tuesday.
Tabler, one of Washington’s most widely quoted Syria specialists, called on Obama to press key companies in Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands to stop buying Syria’s heavy crude oil and take other measures to ensure that Damascus can’t sell its oil in order to separate Assad from the business elite that supports him.
“To help end the bloodshed, Washington will need to be equally ruthless” in applying such sanctions as Assad has been in applying his “iron-fist-in-velvet-glove approach” to the uprising against him, warned Tabler, who also claimed Tuesday that the administration was preparing such measures “behind the scenes” as part of a “quiet sea change” in its approach to Damascus.
But such an approach carries significant risks, according to Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma who publishes the widely read Syria Comment blog.
“If we go down the road of augmenting sanctions in a serious way, that’s a slippery slope toward military intervention, because sanctions alone can’t overturn the regime,” he told IPS. “We haven’t seen a regime in the Middle East as tough as Assad’s collapse because of poverty, and we’ve learned from recent experience that poverty and blowing out the middle class are not the way to build a successful democracy in any case.”
Ironically, he said, the latest events have served the purposes of both capitals.
“For Washington, Ford’s trip and the tougher-sounding rhetoric demonstrate that Obama is on the side of the Arab Spring and eases the pressure on him by the critics to recall [the ambassador]. And by sending Ford into the eye of the storm in Hama, Clinton has made it easier for Assad to rally his supporters around the charge that the U.S. is leading the effort to destabilize Syria,” he said, adding that the latest developments were unlikely to substantially change the balance of power within the country.
Ford’s visit — and subsequent criticism of the regime — indeed won him plaudits from some of Washington’s fiercest anti-Assad hawks, who urged the administration to do more of the same.
Elliott Abrams, who served as former President George W. Bush’s senior Middle East aide, wrote on his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations site that the administration now faces a choice – whether to cite the attack on the U.S. embassy as a reason for recalling Ford or “to send him back to Hama and to ratchet up his public displays of disgust with the regime and its behavior.”
If the latter, wrote Abrams, “either he will become a symbol of
resistance to tyranny (always a great role for any American envoy) or
he will be expelled from Syria,” thus dramatizing “America’s final
break with Assad…. Either way we win.”
(Inter Press Service)