Images from mobile-phone cameras offer the only glimpses of violence in Syria where, according to U.N. estimates, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have killed as many as 2,000 civilians in the past five months. The United Nations now reports “widespread and systematic” attacks against the Syrian people that may amount to crimes against humanity.
For months, the international community has been powerless to stop the attacks. Division among the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members has prevented the council from speaking with one voice against the brutality.
But the United States and its closest European allies stepped outside the Security Council arena Aug. 18 to issue a strong unified statement. President Barack Obama said, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
Obama added that Assad “is standing in the way” of Syria’s future. “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” Obama stated.
Leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom released a joint statement: “Our three countries believe that President Assad, who is resorting to brutal military force against his own people and who is responsible for the situation, has lost all legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead the country. We call on him to face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people and to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”
It is hard to defend Assad’s assault on peaceful protesters. Yet Russia and China — both permanent Security Council members with veto power — have stymied efforts to rebuke the dictator. Russia has longtime economic and military ties with the regime, and China has investments in Syrian energy. Consequently, the two nations boycotted council discussions in June on a draft resolution condemning the crackdown.
In his statement, Obama announced “unprecedented sanctions to deepen the financial isolation” of Syria, which he hopes will hinder Assad from financing his offensive. The president’s executive order freezes Syrian assets under U.S. control and prohibits Americans from doing business with Damascus. The sanctions also ban imports of Syrian petroleum. “We expect today’s actions to be amplified by others,” Obama stated.
But many doubt that sanctions will persuade Assad to step down. Indeed, Damascus is accustomed to American sanctions. For example, President George W. Bush imposed sanctions against Syria for supporting terrorism and interfering with his efforts to stabilize Iraq. And President Ronald Reagan did the same in 1986 over a Syrian-sponsored plot to blow up an Israeli airplane.
Given the nearly worldwide outrage at Assad’s assault on his people, many hope that global backing will make this new round of sanctions effective. Some of Syria’s powerful neighbors, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are applying pressure on the dictator, and several governments around the world have recalled their diplomats from the Syrian capital.
If Assad refuses to step down, it is unclear what other options are available to force him from leadership. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton underscored that Syrian democracy leaders have stated that they do not want foreign intervention in their movement. So, few (if any) experts predict a Libya-type military mission in Syria. Instead, many fear that conditions in Syria could deteriorate into a civil war that could further destabilize the Mideast.