Why has Obama not called for Assad to go yet?


By Josh Rogin

Early last week, several reports suggested that the White House was preparing to firmly, finally, call on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. But one week later, the Obama administration has made no such declaration and senior officials are now saying that U.S. rhetoric doesn’t matter one way or the other.

The silence from the administration has left many in Washington wondering what caused the White House to back away from a firmer stance. Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan convinced President Barack Obama to delay the U.S. announcement for two weeks in a phone call between the two leaders on Aug. 11, in order to give Turkey the chance to try to convince Assad to stop murdering civilians.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor denied that report to The Cable, saying, “While we of course work to coordinate with friends and allies, the United States makes foreign policy decisions based on our interests and our values. Period.”

Vietor also denied that the Obama administration’s plan to explicitly call for Assad to step down was delayed. However, two administration officials not directly involved in the decision told The Cable that they were expecting the announcement to be made on Aug. 12, and then were surprised it never came.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today that it’s not important if the United States calls on Assad to go or not, but should rather devote its energies toward establishing an international coalition with other countries that possesses leverage over the Syrian regime that the United States does not. She specifically mentioned Turkey.

“It’s not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” Clinton said at an NDU event this morning, while sitting alongside Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “If Turkey says it, if [Saudi Arabian ruler] King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it. We don’t have very much going on with Syria, because of a long history of challenging problems with them.”

The administration’s diplomatic options with Damascus are few. Despite the fact that the U.S. has not recalled Ambassador Robert Ford from the embassy, there are reportedly no direct interactions between the United States and the Syrian regime.

“I am a big believer in results over rhetoric,” she said. “And I think what we’re doing is putting together a very careful set of actions and statements that will make our views very clear; and to have other voices, particularly from the region, as part of that is essential for there to be any impact within Syria.”

It’s true that the administration has been steadily rolling out sanctions on the Syrian regime and pressing other countries, especially Turkey, to exert their influence over Assad. Clinton spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu before he went to Damascus, and State Department official Fred Hof visited Ankara the same week. And while Davutoglu has ramped up the rhetoric — most recently saying that Assad must change course “or else” suffer some as-yet unspecified consequences — the Syrian regime has only increased its violence against the domestic protest movement in recent days.

In Washington, senators and critics have been calling on the administration to remove the confusion from its declaratory policy on Syria, caused by a series of gradually and incrementally harsher condemnations of the regime’s actions — but all of them stopping short of a call for Assad to go. In the cases of Egypt and Libya in recent months, the administration has faced criticism from all sides for being either too slow or too quick to call for Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi to step down, respectively.

On Aug. 11, White House spokesman Jay Carney went right up to the line and said, “Syria would be a much better place without [Assad]; he has lost his legitimacy, and now long since lost his opportunity to lead the transition that the Syrian people are demanding take place…. We believe that a transition needs to take place in Syria, and that Syria will be better off without President Assad.”

So what’s keeping the White House from just pulling the trigger and publicly calling for Assad to step down?

“Basically they are there. It’s just a matter of how they say it and when,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It is important to be clear. The question is just when is the best time to do it.”

Turkey’s last ditch attempt at dialogue with the Assad regime (Davutoglu said the latest engagement attempt was Turkey’s “final word” before taking steps to pressure the Syrian regime) threw a wrench in the Obama administration’s timeline. The White House wants to coordinate closely with the Turks to bring maximum pressure to bear, said Tabler.

“I think the Turkish thing clearly caught them by surprise. It’s slowing things down,” he said. “It’s important [to call for Assad to go] because it focuses the U.S. government and dispels ambiguity. But you want to make sure you say it when you have all your allies on board.”

Tabler’s WINEP colleague Michael Singh disagreed in an article today in Foreign Policy, where he argued that, by indicating that Assad must go but not actually saying it, the administration is confusing people in the region and leaving the opposition twisting in the wind:

The problem with this ‘wink and nod’ approach to calling for Assad’s departure is that it leaves sufficient ambiguity to hamper American efforts. It feeds the Syrian regime’s efforts to convince domestic constituencies who may be on the fence that things will one day return to business as usual. It results in a lack of clarity down Washington’s bureaucratic chain — which is a very long chain indeed — as to what precisely the U.S. policy is in Syria, leading U.S. diplomatic and military officials on the ground around the world without precise guidance. And, perhaps most damagingly, it feeds into a narrative that the U.S. response to the Arab uprisings has been to hedge our bets and decide whom to support only when the ultimate outcome is already clear.

But Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Steven Cook said that the administration is trying not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, when Turkish sensitivities were not taken into account.

“It seems the administration is doing what it can to give the Turks some room here, but there’s really no evidence they’ve had any influence on Assad’s behavior,” Cook said. “The way this is being interpreted in the Middle East is that the Turks are giving Assad 15 days of cover so he can snuff out the protests.”

Some experts, however, think the whole debate over what the administration does or does not say about Assad is superfluous, and could even be counterproductive if there’s no action to back it up.

“This is being held out there by all these pundits that if we just say it, it’s going to make it so,” said George Washington University professor and FP contributing editor Marc Lynch. “Once you’ve said it, well then what? Five minutes later it will be all the pundits saying Obama’s weak and he’s not doing anything about it…. Everyone wants to see something happen but there’s a broad recognition of how little leverage we have.”

According to Lynch, the problem with the Obama administration’s Syria policy was actually completely different.

“I think they hung on to the idea of ‘Assad could reform’ too long,” he said. “That was a bigger mistake than not saying Assad must go.”

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