August 18, 2011, is shaping up to be a big day for the future of Syria. It started, for the first time, with large nighttime protests in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial and business center and its second largest city. These protests will undoubtedly breathe new life into a revolution that refuses to be killed, tortured or disappeared by the increasing use of violence of the Assad regime. Aleppo, like Daraa, Hama, Homs, Damascus and Deir Azzour in the east of the country, is demonstrating that it is the brave people of Syria that have driven Assad’s regime ever closer to its demise. Just over halfway through the holy month of Ramadan, it is the people of Syria who are making it a decisive month for the future of their country.
Recognizing the extraordinary will of the people of Syria, President Obama today finally said, “the time has come for President Assad has to step aside.” While it has come late, it is a significant moment for the U.S. and for this president in the Middle East. The president’s explicit call is a sharp break from the oscillating U.S. policy of containing the threats of the Syrian regime or engaging with it. For the first time in the forty-two years of the Baath regime in Syria, a U.S. president has told its leader, Bashar Al-Assad, the son of the first, ruthless Baathist dictator, Hafez Al-Assad, to get out of the way in favour of a peaceful transition to democracy in the country. This is a remarkable turn of events for President Obama who was so committed to engaging with Assad, and who at the start of the year dispatched the U.S.’s first ambassador since 2005 to Damascus.
The president’s call has already had a galvanizing impact on the efforts of the international community. In a coordinated move, the leaders of Europe, notably the “big 3”, Sarkozy, Cameron and Merkel also called today for Assad to step down. In addition, key Arab countries, notably, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have supported the holding of a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to discuss the situation in Syria next Monday. Later today, the chief of the Human Rights Council, Navi Pillay will brief the UN Security Council on the alleged human rights abuses being committed by the Assad regime against its own people. There are credible reports that she will call for up to fifty central figures in the regime to be referred to the International Criminal Court, some of them for allegedly committing crimes against humanity. Turkey’s National Security Council is also meeting later today to decide what action to take regarding its friend, Bashar Al-Assad. A Turkish decision to break from the regime would be a serious blow for Bashar and a vindication of the Obama Administration’s sustained and patient dialogue with Ankara.
After more than two thousand killed, well over 25,000 injured and thousands disappeared, today may be the day when we do see the genuine makings of a regional, Arab and international coalition that seeks to pressure and isolate the leadership in Damascus. A coalition which, as some of us have argued for some time, should make Assad and his regime the international pariahs their actions deserve.
President Obama’s call will also be an important morale boost to the protesting thousands in Syria. For the first time since the uprising in mid-March, the people of Syria know clearly and unambiguously where the U.S. stands. I will leave the last word to a friend in Aleppo who wrote an SMS message straight after the president spoke saying, “Thanks for Obama. It is a new point of our revolution. My friend I will invite you inshallah in Syria when we kick this dictator out.” He promised more protests in Aleppo tonight and a big day tomorrow, the third Friday in Ramadan.
My biggest concern is that Washington is signaling to Russia that it’s OK to meddle in the politics of sovereign nations which are your neighbors. Meddling is going on from Paris to Ukraine, from east to west and north to south, within Europe and at its borders, and always with the intent of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of democratic institutions. And it is being either denied or downplayed.