July 15th, 2011 10:06 EST
US Government Looking Ahead to The End of The Assad Era: What's Next?
"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn`t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."
That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy on 14th of July; this begs the question of what Washington wants to do or can do now to affect the situation in Syria.
In fact, after a decade of policies aimed at marginalizing and ignoring the Syrian regime, U.S. policymakers have come to realize that they have very little leverage to pressure President Bashar Al-Assad.
As protests enter their fourth month, Syrian troops have systematically sought to crush the opposition movement with draconian tactics, leaving over two thousand dead. Entire towns have been subjected to full-blown siege by Assad`s crack military units. Mass arrests and torture is in full swing.
But whereas Obama moved with relative dispatch to condemn Egypt`s Pharaoh and Libya`s leader, in the case of Assad - as with Iran in 2009 - the president has gone mostly silent, timid and reactive, while several other U.S. officials have strongly condemned the violence and urged President Assad to reform. However, the administration statement of disapproval have been coupled with some blather that Assad still has time to implement reforms, which the Syrian President quite predictably, has interpreted as a sign of profound U.S. un-seriousness and a green light to continue his cracking down a bit longer.
However, it seems that the situation has changed lately. The positions of the U.S. government toward Syria now show that Washington is changing and moving step by step and close to the province of President Bashar al-Assad and his demand to step down. The Americans want to do it in a way that does not make them "inherit" the burden and identify or determine the nature of post-Assad alone. On the other hand U.S. message to the Syrian opposition and the world is that there is a qualitative shift in Washington`s position.
For the first time since the uprising began in mid-March, President Barack Obama says that Assad "has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of his people" and that US government was working at the international level "to ensure the continuation of the pressures that bring serious change in Syria." Obama approached more than ever to the blessing of demand: people want to overthrow the regime.
US officials and observers say that the visit of the US Ambassador Robert Ford to the city of Hama, and the statements of the secretary of state Hillary Clinton and later President Obama that Assad has lost his legitimacy, must be considered in the context of the gradual escalation pressures on Syria, which included sanctions on President Assad, his brother Maher, the children of his uncle, his Deputy and his Prime Minister, to the leaders of the intelligence services for their role in suppressing the uprising by force.
However, US officials continue to consider the imposition of new sanctions which will include a wide spectrum, such as the assignment of al-Assad and some of his aides to the International Criminal Court on charges of committing crimes against humanity, and the imposition of sanctions on the oil and gas sectors to deprive and deny the Syrian regime from the use of the proceeds of this sector to finance the acts of repression.
The highlight of the statements of Clinton, according to official sources, is that it undermined the saying that Washington (as well as Turkey, the state of regional capacity to influence the most prominent Syrian developments), cannot dispense with the regime of al-Assad, for many reasons, including the central role of Syria in the peace process, and the fear of political unknown in the event of the fall of al-Assad, as well as the prospects of a civil and sectarian war.
These sources say that Washington`s policy now is based on the conviction that the system of al-Assad is irreparable, and Al-Assad missed all the opportunities that Washington made available to him to lead the process of peaceful transition to a democratic regime. Until the uprising, Washington`s policy toward Syria was based on dialogue to revive peace negotiations with Israel, and use that as an incentive "to move Syria from Iran`s orbit." But it seems that these "illusions evaporated" as reported by sources.
During her visit to Turkey on 15th of July Secretary of State Clinton asked Ankara to better coordination of the positions of the two countries toward Syria. Furthermore U.S. diplomacy will be more active to mobilize regional support (Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries) to tighten the screws on the Assad regime and to deprive it from any political or financial support. The American administration will continue to work multilaterally with Europeans and with Syria`s neighbours, to coordinate targeted sanctions on people in the regime responsible for repression, and to push the Security Council to take on the issue. What Washington wants now is the establishment of an international coalition and regional players to help the opposition to prepare for the post-Assad era, before asking for his stepping down.