The Obama administration has finally imposed sanctions on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. President Obama is also expected to address the situation in Syria in his major speech today. Should he call on Assad to step down, as many in the US have pressed the president to do, his administration will have completed a crucial step in its policy turnaround on Syria after two months of hesitation.
In effect, the administration’s move announces that the policy of engagement with Assad is officially over. A new policy is now required to manage the transition to a post-Assad Syria. However, such a shift requires more assertive leadership. For even now, the administration’s messaging remains somewhat dissonant, requiring more clarity and coherence, which have been sorely lacking over the past two months.
The reversal of Washington’s approach appeared somewhat sudden. Barely two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was still repeating her talking point about Assad having “an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda.” Then on Tuesday, during a press conference with the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, Clinton’s language changed significantly.
“President Assad talks about reform, but his heavy-handed, brutal crackdown shows his true intentions,” Clinton said, moving away from her previous hopeful remarks about Assad the “reformer.” Signaling another shift, Clinton called on Assad to “respond to the demands of the people by a process of credible and inclusive democratic change.”
Clinton’s language was noticeably different from the earlier vague references to “dialogue” and “reform.” For the first time in the last two months, the administration was talking about “democratic change,” visibly moving closer to the demands of the Syrian protesters. The meeting with Ashton also prefigured the sanctioning of Assad personally.
This change in posture toward Assad was also reflected in the media coverage. On Tuesday, David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported that the governments of France, Jordan and Saudi Arabia “are all said to have concluded that the Assad regime cannot survive,” with France also pushing Washington to “signal publicly that it is time for Assad to leave office.”
Yet, according to Ignatius, the White House still “appeared to be weighing whether to make one last attempt” at getting Assad to implement his long-promised reforms. It is unclear what lay behind this tendency, and whether it is attributable to an ongoing debate within the administration.
Whatever the case may be, this confusion was further reflected in the administration’s seemingly paradoxical public call on Wednesday for Assad to either “lead a political transition or leave.” It is unclear how, after declaring Assad a pariah by sanctioning him, the administration thought he had any legitimacy to “lead a transition,” especially when the Secretary of State had just expressed her belief that his “true intentions” were best expressed in his brutal crackdown.
One possible reason for this conflicting message is deference to Turkey’s position. In a report on the meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, on Tuesday, Hürriyet Daily News wrote that “Turkey believes [Assad’s] regime should be given more time to make reforms.” In addition, last week Erdoğan told Bloomberg TV that it was still too early to call on Assad to step down.
At the same time however, the Turks are themselves sending out conflicting messages. In its report, Hürriyet quoted a Turkish diplomat as saying that Ankara wanted “a smooth transformation and an orderly transition” – language that went well beyond “reform,” and echoed Clinton’s, as well as the State Department’s most recent talking point, explaining the latest round of sanctions as “an effort to increase pressure on the government of Syria to … begin transitioning to a democratic system.”
Perhaps, then, Washington’s seemingly dissonant position reflects Ankara’s. Both governments seem to have reached the conclusion that the Assad regime is finished, but they have not yet fully completed the shift to a post-Assad policy. It is a matter of time, as there is no chance that Assad will actually embark on a process of democratic change that would end his grip on power. Nor does Assad have any veneer of legitimacy left. After all, that was the meaning of slapping him with sanctions, holding him responsible for presiding over the savage crimes against his people.
The obvious truth is that Assad always was incapable of reform. At last it would seem the administration is recognizing that its policy of “hope” toward Assad was a pipe dream. However, finally coming to this realization is only half the job. Now the administration needs to formulate an entirely new Syria policy to match this conclusion, no matter how reluctant it may be to abandon its old paradigm.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.