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Isolating Syria's Assad

The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership, and Jordan's king has suggested that President Bashar Assad step down.

November 15, 2011

Syria has been the outlier in the Arab Spring, with President Bashar Assad holding on to power while other autocrats in the region have been ousted — or worse — one after another. But now that the reforms he promised have failed to materialize, Assad is losing the support of other Arab leaders. That development doesn't guarantee that he will step aside, but it makes it more likely. And it vindicates the case for Western sanctions.

Over the weekend, the Arab League suspended Syria's membership in the organization, two weeks after a delegation from the group reached an agreement with Assad. Under its terms, he was to withdraw armed forces from populated areas, release political prisoners, allow journalists and human rights groups into the country and begin a dialogue with opponents, among other steps. But instead, the bloodshed that has marked the 8-month-old uprising has continued, and the agreement has collapsed. More than 250 people have been killed since the agreement was announced Nov. 2.

On Monday, King Abdullah II of Jordan became the first of Syria's Arab neighbors to say that Assad should step down. "I believe if I were in his shoes, I would step down," the king told the BBC. "If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life."

Assad's increasing isolation in his own region will not automatically loosen his hold on power. In fact, it could strengthen it if he stops the violence and introduces reforms to regain his legitimacy. Reforms would be welcome, even at this late date. But they seem increasingly unlikely. At this point, the surest way forward for Syria would be for him to step down.

After some initial reluctance, the United States has called for Assad's resignation, and both the U.S. and Europe have imposed sanctions ranging from bans on oil imports to sanctions against Syrian banks and telecommunications companies. On Monday, the European Union decided to impose sanctions on an additional 18 Syrian individuals "responsible or associated with the repression and supporting or benefiting from the regime." The U.S. is expected to press for United Nations sanctions. The sanctions could put pressure on Assad to reform, but if he continues to resist, they could also weaken his hold on power.

According to the United Nations, 3,500 people have been killed since the government started cracking down on protesters in March. That makes the situation in Syria a humanitarian as well as a political crisis.

Removing Assad remains a difficult proposition. No one has suggested that the U.N. or NATO authorize the sort of airstrikes that contributed to the late Moammar Kadafi's downfall. Sanctions take time to have an effect. But combined with the repudiation of Assad by the Arab League, they could induce Assad to take Abdullah's advice.

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