The Obama administration sharply criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for failing Wednesday to address any of the reforms demanded by anti-government protesters, saying his widely anticipated address to the Syrian parliament lacked substance and would not satisfy calls for change or ease unrest.
However, the administration's displeasure is unlikely to progress beyond verbal reprimands as the U.S. doesn't see the Syrian government's two-week crackdown on dissent as requiring the same response as the large-scale violence launched against protesters by Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
And after years of isolating Assad's regime because of its ties to Iran, opposition to Israel and support for the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, the United States has little in the way of financial or political leverage to steer the Arab country into beginning a peaceful dialogue with dissidents seeking an end to the Assad family's 40-year grip on power..
"Ultimately, it's going to be the Syrian people who judge what they heard today, and whether or not President Assad demonstrated positive movement forward in meeting their aspirations and hearing their call for political and economic and social reform," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
"We expect they are going to be disappointed," he said. "We feel the speech fell short with respect to the kinds of reforms that the Syrian people demanded, and what President Assad's own advisers suggested was coming."
In his speech, Assad blamed "conspirators" for an extraordinary wave of dissent against his authoritarian rule and did not offer any concessions to the protesters. And, despite hints from some Syrian officials, he did not announce the lifting of the country's despised emergency law that is used to crack down on political opponents.
Assad's regime is among the Middle East's most repressive, with government-controlled media and a one-party political order that is even stricter than the ones overthrown in Egypt and Tunisia. He has punished dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse, while his father, the late President Hafez Assad, famously massacred thousands after a Muslim fundamentalist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982.
Yet the Syrian leader had shown signs of reform in recent months, raising the idea of municipal elections and more power for nongovernmental organizations. And the Obama administration has made significant efforts trying to engage Assad, with the promise of greater investment and the possible of removal of sanctions if the country moves out of Iran's orbit and drops its support for militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Heightened expectations make the disappointment perhaps greater for the administration, which has been carefully monitoring the worsening situation in Syria even as it tries to help usher Gadhafi out of power in Libya, safeguard democratic transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, and defuse crises in Yemen and Bahrain that threaten to unsettle long-term U.S. alliances.
The American thinking with Syria is that Assad's regime is brittle and that there's little support for his minority Alawite sect that occupies most positions of power. The government's vulnerability means that without a viable reform package to satisfy the demonstrators, it may be tempted to crack down ever harder so that it doesn't crack itself.
Within hours of Assad's speech, residents of the port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people. It wasn't clear if they fired in the air or at protesters.
Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed in the crackdowns, but President Barack Obama said Tuesday he didn't know if the circumstances that led him to intervene militarily in Libya would be replicated anywhere else. He called Libya a unique situation because Gadhafi was willing to kill his people and that action had to be swift. The air strikes and no-fly zone in Libya also had the blessing of Arab countries and a U.N. mandate.
The president "approaches these situations with a broad set of principles, but he does not have a cookie-cutter approach to each country," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "What's happening in each country is different."
Carney noted that Assad's speech failed to outline the reforms he has been promising since 2005.
The State Department's Toner went further, deriding Assad for his allegation of a grand conspiracy and suggesting that the strong-arm leader listen to what his people are calling for, including rescinding emergency rule.
"It's far too easy to look for conspiracy theories, (rather than) respond in a meaningful way to the call for reform," he said. "The emergency law is incompatible with the rights of citizens."
Revoking emergency rule "would be the kind of step that would indicate reform," Toner said. He added: "It's clear to us that (the speech) didn't really have much substance to it, and didn't talk about specific reforms, as was suggested in the run-up to the speech."
Assad on Tuesday fired his 32-member Cabinet in a move designed to pacify the anti-government protesters, but the overture was largely symbolic. He holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime, and there are no real opposition figures or alternatives to the current leadership.
Opposition leaders have called for mass protests after prayers on Friday and Toner said the U.S. was concerned that Assad's security forces may try to brutally suppress them, given recent attacks on demonstrators.
"Obviously, we would strongly condemn any violence against those protesters," Toner said. "At the same time, we've been consistent in saying that demonstrators need to pursue a peaceful path."