The Obama administration clung Tuesday to fading hopes that a policy of engagement and diplomatic threats can pressure Syria to halt its brutal crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators, refusing to call for President Bashar Assad to step down or even question his legitimacy as a leader.
As Syrian forces continued their assault on the southern city of Daraa and reports put the death toll from five weeks of unrest above 400, the White House and State Department condemned the violence and demanded that it stop. But officials said the U.S. had not given up pressing Assad to change course and listen to the protesters' calls for change.
Even as the administration prepares targeted sanctions against the president and his inner circle to boost pressure on the regime and is urging all Americans in Syria to leave the country as soon as possible, officials said that Assad still had a chance to embrace reform and that the U.S. would make that case directly to Syrian leaders.
"We strongly oppose the Syrian government's treatment of its citizens, and we continue to oppose its continued destabilizing behavior, including support for terrorism and terrorist groups," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. "We call on President Assad to change course now and heed the calls of his own people."
The State Department's director for policy planning, Jake Sullivan, delivered an almost verbatim message. He condemned the moves the Syrian government has "taken against their citizens, the attacks on civilians in many cities around the country, the arbitrary arrests and detentions, the torture, as well as the continued destabilizing behavior in the region."
"The way they are acting right now is not consistent with the way that a responsible government acts," Sullivan said. But he declined to say whether the U.S. believes Assad has lost his legitimacy and stressed that lines of communication between Washington and Damascus remain open.
Although the State Department has ordered some diplomats to leave Syria, the embassy in Damascus will remain open to keep channels open with the government, he said. "We believe that the diplomatic line of communication there offers an opportunity to communicate directly to the Syrian government in ways that we would like to continue to do," he said.
Sullivan noted that top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, had called in Syria's ambassador to the U.S. on Monday to protest the assault on Daraa. He said diplomats in Syria have spoken directly with senior Syrian officials.
The cautious course contrasted sharply with aggressive calls from the U.S. and other nations for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to step down after his forces launched similar attacks on civilians. In that case, the U.S. closed its embassy in Tripoli and effectively halted contact with the Libyan regime, although it did not sever diplomatic relations.
The administration then said Gadhafi lost his legitimacy and must leave power, joining an international coalition that has bombed targets in Libya in a bid to shield demonstrators and civilians from his repression.
A declaration that Assad is no longer the legitimate leader of Syria would be an implicit call for regime change and would be an end to Obama's policy of engagement, which he has held to since running for president. That could have broad ramifications on U.S. policy in the Mideast, also affecting flagging Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Officials insist that Syria is a different case from Libya and that the country's leadership must be left to the Syrian people. That has been the U.S. refrain for crises from Libya to Egypt to Yemen, but this time comes with no demand for an immediate political transition.
"Our response in each country will have to be tailored to that country and to the circumstances peculiar to that country," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, dismissing the idea that the crises in Libya, where a NATO-led coalition has intervened militarily, and Syria, where it has not, are comparable.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Robert Burns contributed to this report.