King Abdullah of Jordan made headlines around the world today when he told the BBC in an interview that it would be in the interest of Syria for President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power because of his regime’s violent suppression of opposition.
According to excerpts of the interview released by the BBC, King Abdullah did not explicitly call for Assad to step down. Perhaps he was mindful of the massive regional instability Assad’s departure could potentially cause, as well as the challenges to his own rule in Jordan. But in diplomatic terms, his words have had the same effect, which make the Jordanian monarch the first Arab leader to say publicly that Assad should go for the good of his country.
Time and again in the interview, the Jordanian monarch dodged the question of whether Assad should leave power.
Has Assad lost legitimacy, he was asked. “We are extremely concerned about the future of Syria and the way the leadership is moving,” Abdullah replied.
Should Assad step aside? “Well, that comes back really to the Syrian regime,” came the response.
When pressed again (“You agree he should give way?”), he told the BBC that “If he doesn’t accept the amendments or the expectation of the Arab League proposal by the 16th (of November) … then definitely we have a major problem with his leadership.”
Adopting a slightly different line of questioning, the interviewer asked Abdullah whether Assad’s days are numbered.
“Whenever you exert violence on your own people, it’s never going to end well and so as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Yes, there will be an expiration date, but again it is almost impossible for anybody to predict whether that is six weeks, six months or six years.”
Asked again if the best way forward was for Assad to step down, Abdullah replied: “I believe that if I were in his shoes I would step down.”
In other words, he was offered plenty of opportunity to explicitly say the Syrian leader should go, but didn’t take them.
Instead, the message Abdullah stressed several times in the interview was the importance of an orderly transition in Syria. Simply switching Assad for another leader without embarking on reform wouldn’t be enough, he told the reporter; what’s needed is a process towards national dialogue and elections.
“We would delude ourselves in thinking that things would change dramatically if the individual (Assad) is gone,” he said. “I think the problem is deeper than that … it’s the political system that’s set up in Syria.”
It was in this context that Abdullah told the BBC that “If Bashar has the interests of his country he will step down but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase.”
The resulting headlines seem to have prompted back-peddling from the Jordanians. The country’s official news agency reported that it “has learned that the King’s remarks, to the BBC … were not a direct call for the president to step down but he was rather responding to a question on what can a person in his position do” (sic). According to the news agency, what Abdullah actually said in the interview was that “Assad should start a new phase of Syrian political life.”
Now that’s much more diplomatic. Abdullah’s own country has not proven immune to the Arab Spring. The kingdom of Jordan has seen its own protests and calls for reform. While relatively small in scope and moderate in their aims compared to other movements seen this year in the Middle East and Africa, opposition groups in Jordan are for the first time challenging Abdullah’s hold on power.