Tony Badran

An end to the Syria pipe dream

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.

  • tony danza

    John Koura, you forgot to mention naser kandeel and wiam wahhab and the rst of the M8 gang.

    October 8, 2011

  • ali daoud


    May 24, 2011

  • Marco Antonio

    Fadi, seems like majd's vocabulary is limited to only two words, mukawama and 3omala2. The main problem is, his inability to properly identify who the 3omala2 or the mukawama are. (...)

    May 24, 2011

  • abbass

    Majd >> Sayyed Hassan must be (...)telling himself I'm can't believe this but someone actually bought into our God's gift nonsense and is repeating it in public.

    May 23, 2011

  • Moonsear

    thank you majd yes without general aoun, who ran away as soon as the syrian invasion he was expecting began instead of doing the brave he thing promised, the syrian occupation would not have occurred and if you really want to know about how things would be with "no more Lebanon" take an afternoon off and sit down with Mr(s) hardan, fares, qanso and nicolas and they will tell you all about it, they might even convince you that it's a wonderful thing.

    May 23, 2011

  • Savio

    So Adonis, let me get this straight: you only want to see news about Lebanon? I guess because the rest of the world does not interest you? Majd: you are god's gift to the world! allow us to hail you

    May 23, 2011

  • ali daoud

    Fadi, sure nobody but Hizbullah and General Aoun deserve to rule this country, actually if not for them there would have been no more Lebanon. "Hizbullah killing innocents"?!!! have u seen it in a dream?!!! habibi, back in 2000, Hizbullah didn`t even touch those who were part of Lahad army who committed crimes against their fellow Lebanese during israel`s occupation, Hizbullah has even forgiven those 3omala2! actually, Hizbullah`s morality and discipline is way beyond your level of understanding, it`s a God`s gift. in the whole world, wether one likes Hizbullah or doesn`t, Hizbullah is well respected for his discipline.

    May 22, 2011

  • Marco Antonio

    John Koura, you forgot to mention naser kandeel and wiam wahhab and the rst of the M8 gang. The two are a just a few of our "brightest lights" and some of the most loyal and may I add "selfless and fully dedicated" to our "independence" sort of politicians. Just like adonis, they are not and "never" were occupation collaborators at any time in their lives or their "illustrious" careers. We are so "blessed" with these "freedom" fighters", those "fine" folks who always "stand up" for our independence. See what I mean??? Truly, "top notch" people...

    May 22, 2011

  • fady

    lebanon should just be ruled by ssnp and hezbollah.. they are so capable and smart.. very impressive too - especially when they give great speeches, burn tires, kill innocent people and sleep in the streets - ta7ya soria

    May 21, 2011

  • dani

    No one complained when every other story was about Egypt.

    May 20, 2011

  • John KOURA

    Adonis Lebanon is part of Syria just ask MPs Assaad Hardan, Marwan Fares and Nabil Nicolas.

    May 20, 2011


    look, another syrian article. i haven't seen syrian news portal talking so much about situation in syria like...nowlebanon. If someone who doesn't know the geography here would make his conclusions by reading this portal, it would conclude that lebanon is part of syria.

    May 20, 2011

  • strider


    May 19, 2011

  • mehdi soldier

    Ahmadinejad: West to blame for Syrian unrest, Ahmadinejad: West 'causing drought' in Iran. Now seriously, how can anyone contradict this man :>)

    May 19, 2011