On August 18th, after months of dithering, President Obama finally took a firm stand on the unrest roiling Syria when he announced that "the time has come for President Asad to step aside." By doing so, the United States has belatedly brought itself in line with the growing number of nations that have abandoned the Syrian dictator as a result of the brutal five-month-old crackdown he has waged against his own people.
But, now that America is well and truly engaged, is there anything that we can actually do to speed Assad's ouster? In point of fact, there is. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the United States has at least two means at its disposal to pressure the Syrian government—if only it possesses the political will to use them.
The first is economic. The Obama administration coupled its public condemnation with the passage of new sanctions that prohibit the importation of petroleum products from Syria into the United States, and bar U.S. citizens and companies from exporting goods there. That's certainly a good start. Yet by itself, this American pressure isn't likely to amount to much—in large part because the U.S. has precious little leverage over the Syrian economy. Europe, however, has a great deal more; according to the Financial Times, European countries cumulatively account for some 95 percent of Syria's crude exports. These, in turn, are estimated to provide for approximately a quarter of the regime's total revenues. If the EU follows America's lead and begins to economically isolate Assad, the results could be devastating for Damascus. The Obama administration, therefore, needs to follow up its own financial pressure on Syria with a serious diplomatic effort aimed at prompting the countries of Europe to do the same.
The second is material. For years, Syria's opposition forces have languished in relative obscurity, garnering little attention or support from the West. Five months into Assad's offensive, not much has changed—the United States and its allies may know a great deal about the plight of the Syrian people, but they still know far too little about the disparate forces now organizing against the regime in Damascus. Yet, as Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has helpfully mapped out, the constellation of opposition forces now arrayed against the Syrian government is both extensive and promising. The United States now needs to redouble its efforts to identify, engage and empower viable alternatives to the current regime. This entails providing them with the political visibility and resources necessary to succeed in their struggle, while at the same time ensuring that their vision for the country is not inimical to ours.
In isolation, neither step is guaranteed to hasten the collapse of the current regime in Damascus. But, if implemented in tandem (and especially if supported and amplified by the international community), these policies stand a reasonable chance of at least altering Assad's present, destructive trajectory—and could perhaps even help to bring about an end to the Assad era. Just as significant, in a region where U.S. credibility is in distinctly short supply at the moment, a serious U.S. policy on Syria can send a forceful message that Washington is both willing and able to put its money where its mouth is.