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Why hasn't President Obama called for Syria's Assad to go?

As the death count rises in Syria, calls are mounting for President Obama to denounce Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. But Syria's pivotal role in the region and fragile ethnic and religious balance are complicating the situation.

By Staff writer / August 12, 2011

Protesters supporting embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shout slogans and hold his portraits in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday, Aug. 10. The Obama administration, which announced new sanctions Wednesday, is preparing for the first time to explicitly call for Assad to step down, unnamed officials have told the AP. The moves are a direct response to Assad's decision to escalate the crackdown by sending tanks into opposition hotbeds

Muzaffar Salman / AP

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Washington

The Obama administration continues to toughen its language on Syria. But the White House has not yet taken the final, fateful step of issuing an explicit presidential call for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down due to his brutal suppression of civilian unrest.

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On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney stopped just short of saying that it’s irrevocably time for Assad to go. Syria “would be a much better place without him,” Carney said of the country’s embattled leader.

Directly asked whether Assad should now exit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sidestepped in a Thursday interview, telling Scott Pelley of CBS that the Syrian people should decide that issue.

The US has been very clear about Assad’s “loss of legitimacy,” said Secretary Clinton, and has been working hard to marshal international opinion.

“What is important is that the Syrian people know that the United States is on the side of a peaceful transition to democracy.... I come from the school that we want results, not rhetoric,” said Clinton.

President Obama, for his part, expressed deep concern about Assad’s continued use of violence in a phone call with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Edrogan, said the White House. The two leaders agreed violence should end now, US officials said.

Critics have been pushing Obama for weeks to say that Assad should go. As the administration continues to proceed slowly on the issue, the language of domestic opponents has itself gotten tougher and tougher.

“The inconsistency and indeed incoherence of the administration’s Middle East policy is truly startling,” said Dov Zakheim, a defense official in the Bush administration, in a commentary published this week in the “National Interest.”

Why hasn’t Mr. Obama yet appeared onscreen saying flatly that Assad is a brutal thug who should give up his post? After all, critics have been pushing the president to do that for weeks.

Partly, it is because the administration is trying to preserve what influence it retains inside Syria’s borders. Ambassador Robert Ford likely would have to leave the country if Obama issues a call for Assad to leave.

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