White House Leans on Regimes in Syria and Yemen

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A day before Obama’s address on the Middle East, the White House made two important gestures Wednesday in the ongoing Arab Spring saga. As with much of U.S. policy in the region of late, its not clear how much effect either will have.

The first: Obama is leveling sanctions against Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and several Syrian government associates, a step forward for a White House that has taken a softer line on Assad than with other repressive Arab rulers — Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi — in part out of fear that whatever regime comes after Assad’s could be worse than the current one, which some in Washington still think the U.S. can deal with. As The New York Times notes, however, Wednesday’s sanctions may be mostly symbolic: Assad and his cronies have few assets that would be subject to a U.S. freeze. It’s possible, then, that Obama was more interested in influencing public opinion in the Arab world — and to defuse a tough anti-Assad resolution introduced by a group of Senate conservatives last week.

Meanwhile, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who is something of a de facto U.S. envoy to the al-Qaeda hotbed of Yemen, phoned that country’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to urge him to sign a political transition agreement that would lead to his departure. But this isn’t the first time Obama and Brennan have nudged Saleh, a canny political survivor who has been stalling the transition deal for weeks, and it’s not clear whether another push will help.

Here’s the White House statement on Brennan’s call:

Brennan noted that this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform. He affirmed the commitment of the United States to stand with the Yemeni government and people as they implement this historic agreement, foster economic development, and combat the security threat from al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.  Brennan also reiterated that all parties must refrain from violence and proceed with the transition in a peaceful and orderly manner.