The Obama administration formally demanded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and imposed a raft of new economic sanctions on his government, sharply escalating the pressure on Damascus. But the U.S. and its allies have such limited leverage over the Assad regime that it’s far from clear if—or when—they’ll be able to actually force the strongman out of office.
After weeks of mixed messages about Assad, the White House made a definitive break with the Syrian leader on Thursday, accusing him of “imprisoning, torturing, and slaughtering his own people.” In a bluntly worded written statement, the administration said it was time for Assad to “step aside” and “get out of the way.”
The White House tried to bolster the tough words with a total freeze on all Syrian assets inside the U.S. and a wide-ranging ban on the import of Syrian oil, the Assad regime’s main revenue source. Canada, Germany, France, and the U.K. echoed the American call for Assad’s departure and said they’d impose additional economic sanctions, while the European Union—the largest single purchaser of Syrian oil—said it would meet on Friday to discuss whether to impose its own embargo on Syrian petroleum.
Still, the coordinated moves by Washington and its main European allies were as notable for what they didn’t include as for what they did. The United Nations Security Council—which has yet to formally condemn Assad for the crackdown—was conspicuously silent. Turkey, Syria’s primary trading partner and most important foreign intermediary, declined to say whether it would be willing to impose any economic sanctions on Assad. And the U.S. and other Western powers made clear that they weren’t considering any form of military intervention into Syria.
“The threat of military action simply wouldn’t be credible right now,” said David Schenker, the director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There was a moment in 2004, before we were bogged down in Iraq, where Assad was legitimately concerned that we might turn left and come after him next. But there’s just no stomach for that kind of operation any more, and Assad knows it.”
The administration’s tough rhetoric on Thursday represented a sharp reversal from its previous positions. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly declined to call for Assad to step down and said there were no “arbitrary deadlines” for him to do so. Earlier today, by contrast, Clinton strode to a podium at the State Department and echoed Obama’s calls for Assad to leave office.
“The transition to democracy in Syria has begun, and it’s time for Assad to get out of the way,” she said.
The administration’s earlier reluctance to directly call for Assad’s departure stemmed, in part, from fears about what could come next. Syria is a majority Sunni country long dominated by members of its Alawite minority, and many U.S. officials fear that the country could descend into a sectarian civil war if Assad were to be forcibly removed from power. Religious political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are the only organized opposition movements in the country, and some American analysts believe that an Assad ouster would also open the door to an Islamist takeover of broad swaths of the country.
Now that the administration has decided to nevertheless roll the dice on a post-Assad Syria, U.S. officials hope economic sanctions will force him out of power. That may be wishful thinking. Assad, unlike Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi, never kept much money in the U.S. The Treasury Department was able to freeze more than $30 billion in Libyan financial assets earlier this year when the administration made a similar demand that Qaddafi step down. But people familiar with the matter say Treasury has only been able to identify and freeze a few hundred million dollars of Assad-linked money and is unlikely to find much more in American financial institutions.
With military force off the table and China and Russia standing in the way of meaningful U.N. sanctions, the most powerful weapon in the American arsenal is the new embargo on Syrian oil. The International Monetary Fund estimated that oil sales accounted for up to 30 percent of Syria’s total government income between 2006 and 2010, providing Assad with $2.8 billion in 2008 and $2.4 billion in 2009. The new American sanctions bar U.S. citizens or companies, regardless of where they are in the world, from purchasing Syrian oil or doing any kind of petroleum-related business with Syria.
Here, too, the initial impact will be limited. Oil industry analysts estimate that EU countries buy roughly 95 percent of Syria’s oil, accounting for an exponentially larger share of the total market than the U.S. The EU will meet on Friday to consider what type of sanctions to impose on Syria, but it is far from a given that all of its 27 member governments will be willing to cut off the alliance’s oil dealings with Syria. European companies are the biggest players in the Syrian oil market and would suffer large losses if they had to abandon their investments there. Some EU governments have also expressed concern that economic sanctions would harm ordinary Syrian civilians while leaving Assad largely unscathed.
Obama administration officials say they’re optimistic that the new measures will help force Assad out of office. A senior administration official told reporters earlier on Thursday that the U.S. was “certain that Assad is on the way out.” But there are no visible signs that Assad’s hold on power is weakening. The U.S. and its allies, moreover, have few tools for forcing the Syrian strongman to step down. Unless they find some, today’s demands may prove to be little more than empty words.