Syrian President Bashar al Assad just can't seem to take a hint. Even a strong hint. And that's what the Obama administration has been delivering, faster and more furiously with each passing day. But the 45-year-old Syrian president doesn't want to step down and join the ranks of ousted dictators in exile or in jail.
So what's taking so long for the administration to explicitly call for his ouster? Why won't it demand that he step down, as it did with the cancer-ridden Hosni Mubarak, America's longstanding Egyptian ally, or Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, demonic leader of an occasional ally?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried dancing around the issue in an interview Thursday with CBS' Scott Pelley. Initially she said that she and other top White House officials were "working very hard to marshal international opinion" to demand Assad's removal and, failing that, to impose tough sanctions that would bring about such a result. Besides, she added, what mattered was that "the Syrian people know that the United States is on the side of a peaceful transition to democracy."
When a frustrated Pelley refused to accept the dodge and continued pressing her about why the United States didn't just "lead" and "take that one half-step further and say that Assad's time is done," Clinton replied — wink wink, nod nod — "we've been very clear in what we have said about his loss of legitimacy." Washington had been "among the first to say it," she added.
Removing Assad required more than just an "American voice," she asserted. There had to be many voices. And now there are: the Arab League, the Europeans, even Saudi Arabia, which has called the Assad government a "killing machine." That's tough stuff from Riyadh, even if it's motivated less by outrage over the slaughter in Syria than by Assad's unwillingness to distance himself from Iran, Saudi Arabia's nemesis.
As Clinton pointed out, even Russia and China are now joining America's criticism of Syria, after vowing that they never would. So what was the holdup? Finally, she let the cat out of the diplomatic bag about why Obama has been playing coy. She observed that for popular pressure to force Assad from office, there must be "an organized opposition," and, she lamented, "there isn't one." There are the "beginning sprouts" of one, including the "local coordination councils" that have been rallying support and keeping track of the cost of the mayhem throughout Syria. But, as she put it, there is still "no address for the opposition."
How could there be? The Assad clan has specialized in ruthlessly repressing anything that smacks of opposition, and not just under Bashar's tender mercies.
After recently minted U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford traveled to Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city, to see the results of what Assad claims is a fight against terrorism, he called the regime's crackdown "grotesque" and "abhorrent" — undiplomatic language indeed. Hama, after all, was the scene in 1982 of an infamous slaughter of between 10,000 and 30,000 Syrians by Bashar's father, Hafez al Assad. It's hard to imagine much of an opposition springing up under those circumstances. Yet a succession of American administrations never stopped trying to "engage" Hafez al Assad, whose surname in Arabic means "lion." They continued to believe not only that Syria held the key to Arab-Israeli peace, but that, however brutal and corrupt, the Assads — minority Alawites, a religious splinter group from Islam — still offered the "best hope for change without instability," as a 2006 Wikileaked cable concluded. Indeed, Clinton herself said earlier that many Syrians still considered Bashar Assad — though vain, egocentric and a less talented politician than his father — a "reformer."
But that was then. No one believes now that the man who heads a regime that has murdered more than 2,000 of its citizens for demanding an end to corruption and the adoption of political reform can deliver change.
So why is the White House hesitating to do a full diplomatic monty and demand that Assad quit? Why is Obama, as Tablet columnist Lee Smith recently lamented, "playing catch-up" with others who have denounced Assad and withdrawn ambassadors? Maybe, suggests one administration official, because, as Clinton says, the Syrian opposition is not yet ready for such a declaration. Or maybe because the Turkish foreign minister, who met with Assad on Tuesday, warned that such a move at this stage might be counterproductive.
But maybe it's because American officials don't want to replay Libya, where Obama called for Gadhafi's ouster only to have the Libyan rebels attack one another rather than their oppressor. Finally, maybe the administration doesn't want pesky reporters to demand, following such a declaration, "Now what?"
Despite what the White House sees as reservations and grounds for caution, students of Syria say such a day of rhetorical reckoning is fast approaching. Whether such a declaration will have the desired impact is another matter entirely.