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Jordan’s king calls on Syria’s President Assad to step down

Jordan's King Abdullah II has become the first Arab leader to openly say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stand down in the interest of his country, reports Michael Ireland, Senior International Correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

King Abdullah told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that if he were in Assad's position, he would make sure "whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo."

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, King Abdullah urged President Assad to begin talks on an orderly transition of power.

The BBC reports that many Arab leaders have condemned the crackdown on months of protests in Syria. Dozens of deaths are reported in the latest unrest on Monday.

The BBC said both the Saudi and Qatari ambassadors left Damascus in protest at the repression. The Arab League voted on Saturday to suspend Syria's membership.

However, King Abdullah went further than other Arab leaders in his exclusive interview with BBC World News television.

"If Bashar has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life," he said.

"That's the only way I would see it work and I don't think people are asking that question," he added.

King Abdullah warned there would be "more of the same" if whoever replaced President Assad did not change the status quo.

The BBC says Jordan, which borders Syria, has been increasingly critical of the crackdown on anti-government protesters.

The BBC stated that many Western powers have urged President Assad to stand down. Both the European Union (EU) and the US have said he has lost legitimacy but have ruled out military intervention.

The EU on Monday tightened sanctions on Syria, the BBC said, reporting that EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels added 18 Syrian officials to a list of people affected by a travel ban and asset freeze.

The BBC said the ministers also approved moves to prevent Syria getting funds from the European Investment Bank.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he hoped the UN would finally impose its own sanctions on Syria. Russia and China last month vetoed a Western-sponsored resolution condemning Damascus. The BBC also reported that earlier on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem reacted defiantly to the Arab League's suspension. He said the decision was illegal, and vowed to overcome "conspiracies" against Damascus.

The Arab League is set to hold another meeting to discuss Syria on Wednesday.

The BBC said Russia on Monday condemned the suspension. "Someone really does not want the Syrians to agree among themselves," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow.

In the latest Syrian violence, the Local Co-ordination Committees -- a network of opponents to President Assad's rule -- said 40 people had been killed on Monday, including 20 in the restive southern province of Deraa.

There are also reports that about 20 members of the security forces were killed in a clash with defectors from the Syrian army, the BBC said.

The BBC reported that such claims are impossible to verify as the Syrian government has severely restricted access for foreign journalists.

The BBC also explained that the UN says more than 3,500 people have died since the start of the protests in March while the Syrian authorities blame the violence on terrorists.

Key Quotes from King Abdullah’s BBC Interview

On Assad stepping down:

"If I were in his shoes, I would step down. If it was me, I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we're seeing. Again, I don't think the system allows for that, so if Bashar has the interests of his country, he would step down but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life."

On a successor:

"This is the first time where I think most leaders in the Middle East don't have a clear answer on Syria. If Bashar was to step down, he needs to step down with changing the way the system deals with its people, so if he was to say 'I'm going to step down but let's have new elections, let's reach out to the people, let's get this as a national dialogue', then it would work. But if you're just going to remove one person and put another person in, I think that you'll continue to see more of the same."

On who's in charge:

"If you understand Syrian politics, he's in front, and the image of Syria is President Bashar. Having said that, both his brother and brother-in-law are very active on military side. So at the end of the day, like all leaders in Middle East, we're in the driving seat, we have to shoulder the responsibility for what happens in that country. But I don't think it is a one-man show, I think there is a team there, and again there is a system that has expectations of whoever is in the driver seat unfortunately."

On violence:

"Whenever you exert violence on your own people it is never going to end well, and so as far as I am concerned, yes there will be an expiration date, but again it is almost impossible for anybody to predict if it would be six weeks, six months or six years."

On reform:

"I honestly believe that he has reform in his blood. The vision that he had for Syria the times that I met him was very encouraging. I think the challenge is does the system allow for reform? So even, as you said, if Bashar was not on the scene, if the regime brings in someone else, does that person get it and realise the world has changed? And that is where I have my doubts."

On attempts at dialogue:

"Well I have spoken to him [Bashar al-Assad] twice earlier this year expressing our frustration and concerns about what was going on in Syria... I even sent the chief of the Royal Court in the late spring to see him again to see if we can't work together in bringing the violence down in Syria. And it became very clear to me that they were not interested in dialogue with Jordan or a lot of other countries unfortunately."

On Middle East politics:

"If Syria is kept in isolation, you are going to continue to see what is going on pretty much the same. However there are other forces at play, there is still the Arab peace proposal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. You have the Arab Spring in general. Recently we have maybe some hype moved on the Iranian portfolio because of the nuclear issue. The Turks are taking more aggressive stands in the north. What's going to happen in Lebanon? As you well know the Middle East is a mosaic of things and I think the problems that are challenging leaders in the Middle East is if there is life after Bashar what is that? And I think a lot of people are concerned because the unknown is scaring them more than the known."

In analysis of the Syrian conflict on the BBC website, Lyse Doucet of BBC News says that King Abdullah's remarks, coupled with the Arab League's decision to suspend Damascus, mark a turning point in the Arab world's approach to Syria.

Doucet writes: “But Jordan's monarch was emphatic that President Assad stepping down was not enough. His call to the Syrian leader was about changing a ‘system.’ He admitted that no-one was clear how to do that, and the Syrian regime still believed it was ‘in a fairly comfortable position.’

"King Abdullah, like many others, also emphasized there was great concern about ‘life after Bashar.’ He warned that any outside intervention in Syria would open ‘Pandora's box.’

“The relationship between two Arab leaders, seen as a new generation when they took over from their fathers, has been under growing strain.

"But King Abdullah said he still believed the Syrian leader had ‘reform in his blood.’ He had reached out to him earlier this year, even if, as he admitted, Jordan was not ‘by any means... a perfect story.’"

Timeline of Growing Foreign Pressure on Syria:

June 10: Turkish PM condemns the "savagery" of the response to the unrest

July 19: Qatar closes its embassy in Damascus after an attack by Assad loyalists

August 8: Saudi Arabia condemns crackdown and recalls its envoy in Damascus

August 10: US imposes new sanctions on Syrian telecom companies and banks

August 18: US, UK, Germany and France call on President Assad to step down; US imposes full ban on oil imports

November 12: Arab League suspends Syria from the organization

November 14: Jordanian king openly urges Assad to go; EU tightens sanctions

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Christian Telegraph

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