Syrian President Assad must step down

It is time for President Bashar Assad to step down from power and for peace to come again to Syria.

As secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, I have always sought to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, but the brutality and enormous loss of life in Syria has compelled OIC to take a moral stand to aid the critical needs of its people. I am encouraged that President Barack Obama and his administration together with the majority of nations have recognized the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in an effort to bring peace and stability.

In many years of private meetings with Assad, I consistently advised him to trust and embrace the patriotic forces of the country and insisted that reforms were necessary. He opted to not initiate any meaningful political reform. When pro-democracy protests started in March 2011, he treated his own people as enemies of the state and sent his tanks to crush protesters instead of taking advantage of the popular demonstrations to initiate real political reform.

In May 2011, I sent one of my senior advisers to Damascus to deliver a written message to him that expressed my profound concern at the escalation of his administration's violent practices and stressed the need to protect civilians, respect human rights and implement reforms promised by the Syrian government. After a number of OIC communiques calling for de-escalation and a negotiated settlement and a United Nations-OIC joint humanitarian mission that garnered little to no action by the Syrian government, the OIC made the decision last August to suspend Syria's membership.

The international community and members of the UN Security Council have not been able to speak with one voice, and the crisis in Syria has evolved into a full-fledged civil war, leaving 60,000 Syrians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced or living as refugees. As government-sponsored violence continues to escalate and the specter of sectarian violence is raised, Assad jeopardizes the future of all Syria's people.

The leader of the Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces assured me the opposition is not sectarian based. That said, the Syrian opposition and civil society organizations need to fight sectarian, religious and ethnic fragmentation as well. It is very important that Alawite and Christian communities are assured of their rightful place in the future democratic Syria. Freedom of religion is crucial.

The biggest responsibility falls on the shoulders of Assad. The government cannot reign over the opposition forces. Assad must end the violence and put the interests of his country and the principle of sanctity of life before the existentialist struggle of his regime. When a nation is at the brink of disaster, it is the leader's duty to sacrifice for his nation; the time for sacrifice has come for Syria.

The brutality in Syria not only affects Syrians, the country's destabilization and violence could spread to neighboring countries already flooded with an unmanageable number of refugees.

Syria is home to some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The archaeological wonders, historical significance and tradition of religious coexistence cannot be understated. The religious and ethnic diversity and coexistence in Syria is a human heritage. The continuous loss of lives on a daily basis, the senseless violence, and the destruction of Syria's physical and moral heritage are too painful to take in. Assad must leave immediately to allow a peaceful political transition of power. It is the only way that we will see an end to the violence marking Syria.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is secretary general of the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation, composed of 56 nations and the second largest international body after the United Nations.

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