On Tuesday, the White House reasserted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had “lost legitimacy.” The spokesman also told reporters that the Obama administration would continue to pressure the Syrian regime to “meet the aspirations of the Syrian people.” However, by continuing to place hope in a regime-led transition, assiduously avoiding calling on Assad to step down, the Obama administration is out of touch with the aspirations and demands of the Syrian protest movement. In fact, the administration is failing to recognize that the Assad regime is headed for inevitable collapse.
The rapid sequence of developments over the last two weeks led to speculation that the US may have reached its end with Bashar al-Assad, edging one step closer to advocating regime change in Syria. This was most noticeable in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark last week that “from [the US] perspective, [Assad] has lost legitimacy.”
However, despite this escalation in Washington’s rhetoric, there were several question marks about whether this actually constituted a concerted shift in policy. It turned out, as the Washington Post reported on Saturday, this was far from being the case.
The Secretary’s tough remarks, the Post reported, were “unscripted,” surprising even her aides. But more importantly, Clinton was almost immediately undercut by President Obama, who introduced telling qualifiers to her statement in a CBS News interview the following day.
Rather than declare that Assad had totally lost legitimacy, Obama said that he was “increasingly” losing it. In other words, there was still hope, as far as the president was concerned, for a change of course. Moreover, Obama qualified his remarks by adding that Assad was losing his legitimacy “in the eyes of his people,” taking the US perspective that Clinton had injected out of the equation.
The uncertainty about US objectives was reflected in Ambassador Robert Ford’s interview with ForeignPolicy.com last Thursday. Ford vacillated between expressing his assessment that the Assad regime “is not even close to meeting [the people’s] demands,” and repeating the official policy of calling on Assad to begin “meaningful reforms.” In other words, the policy remained one of hope in “behavior change.”
But Ford doesn’t set the policy. He merely relays it. The problem, therefore, emanates from the top. According to officials who spoke to the Post, there were serious divisions in the higher echelons. Those uneasy with a more assertive approach, who clearly have the backing of the president, continue to have the upper hand.
And so, during a press conference in Istanbul on Saturday, Secretary Clinton was forced to walk back her earlier comments, offering an unrealistic picture of “a pathway,” to be carved by the Syrian opposition (which was holding a meeting in Istanbul), “hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government, to a better future.”
In other words, after giving up on the Syrian dictator, Clinton fell back on the notion of a possible path forward with Assad. Ensuing statements by anonymous officials quickly rehashed the initial line calling on Assad to reform or step aside.
What explains this strange hesitancy to definitely break with Assad? Administration officials resort to realism, pointing to the Libyan precedent to rationalize the policy. Alternately, those averse to a more assertive US posture justify their preference in terms of reluctance to get out ahead of the Syrian people. But this argument is unconvincing, as the Syrian people have been well ahead of Washington for a while now.
In addition, although US officials are expressing weariness at the perception of Washington “imposing” its narrative on the Syrian uprising, the fact of the matter is that, by continuously espousing options already thoroughly rejected by the protest movement, the administration is, effectively, taking a stand entirely out of touch with the pulse of the Syrian uprising.
The constantly fluctuating American position must be confusing to the protesters—not to mention regional actors looking to Washington for clarity and leadership— but it also risks backfiring, even at the tactical level. The Syrians, for instance, have already warned Ford not to repeat his Hama trip elsewhere in Syria. And so, now that it came out that that trip was also “unscripted,” should the administration back off at this moment, it would appear as though it was retreating before Assad.
Advocates of circumspection argue that calling on Assad to step down would make the US look weak should he manage to survive. But it is US dithering that creates that perception.
In the end, the issue is not whether Assad will hang on for a while before his regime’s inevitable collapse. Nor is it whether he has lost legitimacy in the eyes of his people—he clearly has. What matters is for the super power to signal unequivocally its break with Assad. What the administration misses with its declaratory policy is that when it calls for Assad to “lead the transition,” or for a pathway “in cooperation with the government,” the only words the regime and the protesters hear are “Assad” and “lead,” as well as a US call for the protesters to join hands with their tormenters.
What the US says matters. Assad derives a reflected legitimacy from US engagement and continued recognition of his leadership. Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem, in his warning to the US ambassador, thus made a point of saying that the regime did not expel Ford “because we had hoped to maintain better relations in future.” This is precisely why the Obama administration’s public position should be that the US does not see a future for this regime.
President Obama’s continued reluctance to break with Assad is often attributed to his “realist” tendencies. What the US president needs to understand, however, is that charting a realist Syria policy requires recognizing that the Assad regime is finished. In other words, it means catching up with what the Syrian protesters already know.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.