Middle East

Syria's Assad should step aside, says Jordan's Abdullah

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Media captionKing Abdullah's comments came in an exclusive BBC interview

Like most Arab leaders, Jordan's King Abdullah is still grappling with how best to respond to the growing crisis in Syria.

But he is now the first Arab leader to openly say President Bashar al-Assad should step down and "make sure whoever comes behind... has the ability to change the status quo".

His candid remarks, coupled with the Arab League's bold suspension of Syria, are a turning point in the region's approach to Damascus.

Speaking in a BBC interview during a visit to London, Jordan's monarch said if the Syrian leader acted in "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".

King Abdullah still described Mr Assad as a leader who "has reform in his blood." His greatest criticism was directed at what he called "the system" that did not allow for reform.

"I think we would delude ourselves," he emphasised, "in thinking that the system would change dramatically if the individual was gone."

Surprising candour

His surprising candour comes after what he detailed as months of efforts by himself, and other leaders, to engage with an increasingly isolated Syrian president who still insists he is committed to reform.

Image caption Thousands of Syrians have fled across the border into northern Lebanon to escape the crackdown

The UN says Syria's eight-month long uprising has cost 3,500 lives, mainly protestors but also members of Syria's security forces involved in the violent crackdown.

There is been no official response from Damascus yet to the king's intervention.

A spokesperson for the Syrian embassy in Washington, Roua Sharbaji, said: "the Syrian president only derives his legitimacy from the Syrian people, and only the Syrian people are concerned with this matter".

In an interview with the BBC World Service, she said: "We do expect neighbouring Arab states to play a more constructive role to help Syria overcome this crisis."

The Jordanian monarch said he had spoken twice to his neighbour earlier this year, and also sent his chief of royal court in June.

"It became very clear to me that they were not interested in dialogue with Jordan or a lot of other countries unfortunately," he remarked regretfully.

He said the Syrian regime still believed it was in a "fairly comfortable position and will continue to play groups off each other."

He said there still was not a "cohesive opposition" inside Syria because it would be "oppressed very quickly".

King Abdullah has also come under unprecedented pressure for political reform in his own country.

There are still no strong calls for an end to the Hashemite monarchy but opposition groups are calling for a stronger, more representative parliament and an elected prime minister.

'Pandora's box'

King Abdullah, who succeeded his father King Hussein in 1999, has been talking about political reform since he came to power. His critics accuse him of going too slowly and being wary of far-reaching democratic reform.

Asked why his frequent changes of prime ministers and governments - three this year alone - had not resulted in significant reform, King Abdullah replied: "Those who are scared of change, whether it is political or economic, have been very destructive over the past 12 years."

But he admitted he also had to "shoulder responsibility".

As for Syria, beyond calling on President Assad to do more to bring about political change, the king admitted no-one had a clear idea of how to move forward.

"If there is a life after Bashar, what is it?" he asked rhetorically. Speaking of leaders across the region and beyond, he said, "the unknown is scaring them more than the known".

Mr Assad's supporters in a country comprising many ethnic and religious minoritieas also cite fears of possible chaos and collapse as a convincing reason to stick with the current order.

King Abdullah said concern about instability in Syria was heightened by other regional crises including the "Iranian nuclear file" and the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal "which could be leading us into tremendous difficulty in 2012".

But he was adamant that no country was seriously considering military intervention. He warned that "different countries have different agendas... it would be playing 'Pandora's box'".

Like all of Syria's neighbours, Jordan is already giving refuge to thousands of Syrians fleeing across the border. The king said his country would continue to "open our arms" to those who had to leave.

Syria is also a critical trade route for Jordan, providing the kingdom with essential goods, including food. Many tribes straddle the frontier, relying on cross-border trade.

Tension between Arab neighbours can be explosive. But concern over the consequences of speaking out seems to have been eclipsed by greater worry over the mounting violence next door.

King Abdullah said the Arab spring was "not even half way through". He expected "tumultuous changes" across the region for the next few years.