The Obama administration is edging closer to calling for an end to the long rule of the Assad family in Syria. Administration officials said Tuesday that the first step would be to say for the first time that President Bashar Assad has forfeited his legitimacy to rule, a major policy shift that would amount to a call for regime change that has questionable support in the world community.
The tougher U.S. line almost certainly would echo demands for "democratic transition" that the administration used in Egypt and is now espousing in Libya, the officials said. But directly challenging Assad's leadership is a decision fraught with problems: Arab countries are divided, Europe is still trying to gauge its response, and there are major doubts over how far the United States could go to back up its words with action.
If the Syrian government persists with its harsh crackdown on political opponents, the U.S. could be forced into choosing between an undesired military operation to protect civilians, as in Libya, or an embarrassing U-turn that makes it look weak before an Arab world that is on the tipping point between greater democracy or greater repression.
The internal administration debate over a tougher approach to Assad's regime is occurring amid a backdrop of brutality in Syria. More than 750 civilians have been killed since the uprising began nearly two months ago and some 9,000 people are still in custody, according to a leading Syrian human rights group.
"We urge the Syrian government to stop shooting protesters, to allow for peaceful marches and to stop these campaigns of arbitrary arrests and to start a meaningful dialogue," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday. He said Assad still had a chance to make amends, but acknowledged "the window is narrowing."
Two administration officials said the U.S. is concerned about a prevailing perception that its response to Assad's repression has been too soft, especially after helping usher long-time ally Hosni Mubarak out of power in Egypt and joining the international military coalition to shield civilians from attacks by Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal planning, they said Assad has dispelled nearly any lingering hope that he can or will deliver on grandiose pledges of reform he has made since coming to power 11 years ago. After ending decades of martial law last month, his regime renewed its crackdown on peaceful protesters even more aggressively, used live ammunition and arbitrarily arrested thousands of people.
"We're getting close," one official said on the question of challenging Assad's legitimacy, adding that such a step would oblige the U.S. and, if other countries agree, the international community, to act.
The U.S. has demanded that Gadhafi leave power after four decades of dictatorship in Libya, but has struggled to make that happen, the official noted. "So we need to make sure that what we say matches what we can and will do. It's not just a matter of putting out a statement and giving the magic words that people want to hear. It's a significant decision."
President Barack Obama on Monday welcomed the European Union's decision to impose sanctions on 13 Syrian officials, prohibiting them from traveling anywhere in the 27-nation organization. U.S. sanctions target the assets of two Assad relatives and another top Syrian official. But neither the EU nor U.S. sanctions affect Assad himself, at least not yet.
The officials said the administration may decide to target Assad, though American sanctions against him likely would mean little as the United States has long had unrelated restrictions on Syria because of its designation as a "state sponsor of terrorism."
Obama has tried to engage Syria, seeing it is critical to comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, but the U.S. remains disturbed by the government's ties to Iran, support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and suspicions it has sought to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Israeli concerns loom large as well. The officials said Israel, Washington's closest Mideast ally, is worried about a possible collapse of Assad's leadership and a fracturing of the country's stability. Although Syria and Israel remain technically at war, Israel's border with Syria has been relatively calm for years.
The reality is that the United States has very little sway in Syria. Unlike Egypt, where the United States spent billions of dollars and decades cultivating strong military, government and civil society ties, the isolation of Syria has left the administration with few ways of coaxing better behavior out of Assad's government.
Toner, the State Department spokesman, said Tuesday the Syrian government was stirring up violence with its repression in towns such as Daraa and Banias. He called the government's claims of reforms "false," and demanded that the regime stop shooting protesters even as security forces entered new cities in southern Syria that have been peaceful up to now. Yet it does not appear the regime is listening to the U.S. case and that he may be trying to see how much force he can get away with.
Assad's minority ruling Alawite sect wants to placate enough middle-class members of Syria's Sunni majority to limit the domestic anger, and keep the violence just under the threshold that would prompt serious calls for concerted international action against his government. And if he manages to crush the demonstrations, he will likely usher in a few cosmetic reforms and return to dictatorship as usual, the officials said.
The U.S. would like to sharpen the choice for Assad, so that he moves toward a more conciliatory approach. But one of the things holding the administration back is a classic "better-the-devil-you-know" scenario.
The officials say there is a lack of any organized opposition in Syria, and little understanding of what the alternatives are to four decades of rule under Assad and his father, and whether a chaotic power void would lead to even greater bloodshed.