Syrian President Bashar Assad, having killed as many as 1,300 of his people, now promises constitutional reform and an end to bloodshed. In a speech this week, he called for “national dialogue,” suggested that he would allow rival political parties, and urged refugees to return from Turkey.
His opponents were unimpressed; thousands of protesters took to the streets after the address. If President Obama is similarly skeptical, as he ought to be, he should do what he has so far refused to do: call on Mr. Assad to step down.
The Administration has assiduously avoided making such a declaration. In May, Mr. Obama said Mr. Assad could either lead the transition to democracy or “get out of the way.” Then, in an executive order approving sanctions against Mr. Assad and his inner circle, President Obama said he wanted to “’increase pressure on the government of Syria to end its use of violence and begin transitioning to a democratic system that ensures the universal rights of the Syrian people.” After Mr. Assad’s latest speech, a State Department spokeswoman said: “What is important now is action, not words.”
These statements assume it is not too late for Mr. Assad to lead Syria to a more democratic and pluralist society. But that scenario is improbable at best. Change in Syria will require change at the top.
The Administration’s reluctance to call for Mr. Assad’s resignation may reflect a concern about parallels with Libya, where a declaration that Moammar Gadhafi had to go was followed by a United Nations-authorized air campaign. Ostensibly designed to protect civilians, the operation quickly mutated into an attempt to remove Colonel Gadhafi.
That’s a sobering precedent, but it needn’t determine what the United States does with Mr. Assad. Besides, NATO and the U.N. do not seem interested in a military campaign against Syria.
What is the point of a statement by the United States that Mr. Assad most go if it doesn’t presage military intervention? It would put this country squarely on the side of those who are fighting for democracy in Syria and who realize it cannot come about until Mr. Assad is gone.
The United States shouldn’t get involved militarily, but still can exert leverage with additional, tougher sanctions, and discussions with groups that might come to power in a post-Assad Syria.
The United States has been criticized for reacting with hesitancy and ambivalence to the “Arab Spring,” especially in Egypt and Bahrain. There is no reason to temporize about Syria. President Obama needs to say the words: “He must go.”
— Los Angeles Times