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As nonviolent uprisings began to sweep across the Middle East, Syria initially appeared to have missed the democratic wave pulsating through the region. Although Syrians suffer from many of the same grievances that ail the rest of the Arab world, the pervasiveness and brutality of the country’s security apparatus deterred people from rising up against their government. Once citizens overcame this barrier of fear, however, large-scale demonstrations erupted around the country, posing the greatest threat to Bashar al-Assad’s regime since he came to power. The young leader, who earlier boasted of his immunity to this democratic contagion, responded with a combination of brute force and insincere reforms that recalled the failed tactics of now-deposed autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt. Just as in those countries, such measures have only hardened the resolve of protesters. In turn, the Syrian regime has escalated its crackdown to a degree rivaled only by the Libyan leadership. In doing so, Assad has lost the legitimacy to rule. Unfortunately, the United States has yet to take steps that are commensurate with the severity of the violence. The U.S. leverage with Syria may be limited, but there are nonetheless steps that Washington can take, in coordination with the international community, to help ease Assad out of power.
- Have President Obama make a live, televised statement calling on Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately. Despite the escalation of violence, the United States has only issued written statements condemning the Syrian regime, and none have demanded that Assad step down.
- Continue to pressure Syria at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The administration should be commended for playing a key role in the adoption of an UN HRC resolution condemning Syria. Now, the U.S. must follow up on the mission that investigates Syria’s human rights violations and ensure that it completes its report.
- Encourage EU leaders to impose targeted sanctions on officialsresponsible for violence, including Bashar al-Assad, as well as a trade embargo and the suspension of aid. Such a move will send a strong message and encourage others to defect. Although the U.S. has already imposed targeted sanctions, their impact is negligible.
- Harness the role of the Ambassador to identify credible civil society activists and opposition leaders. After almost six years of a diplomatic boycott, the U.S. Ambassador to Damascus arrived in January. The administration should take advantage of his presence in the country to meet with reformers, which will belie Assad’s argument that there is no viable alternative to his leadership.
- Work with Turkey to arrange for a transfer of power. In recent years, Turkey and Syria have grown increasingly close. Since protests broke out, the Turkish government has sent officials to Damascus twice to encourage the Syrian regime to reform with no result.