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Why it took so long for Obama to say Syria's Assad must go

Obama's call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign was a long time coming. The US president didn't wait as long after protests broke out in Egypt to say that Hosni Mubarak had to go.

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When the Syrian regime redoubled its efforts to suppress demonstrations with force at the beginning of Ramadan, it was clear that the time to take the final step and call for his resignation was getting close, said the official. At that point the administration realized that there was no chance of Assad recovering enough legitimacy to lead a Syria at peace.

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“Increasingly we felt the need to coordinate a stronger response given the continued violence against the Syrian people,” said a second senior administration official.

Will Assad now actually resign as a result of international pressure? That seems unlikely. The example of Mubarak, who left voluntarily but now faces prosecution in Egypt, cannot be comforting to Assad.

At this point, Assad is in a “dictator’s dilemma,” according to Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy. He has unleashed so much violence that it would be extremely difficult for him to back down.

That said, concerted multilateral pressure on Syria has worked in the past, notes Mr. Tabler in an online interview posted on the Council on Foreign Relations website. That is what drove Syria out of Lebanon in April 2005, after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“The second thing that is effective with the Syrians are sanctions, which have affected their economy greatly,” said Tabler.

Writing Thursday in his popular Foreign Policy magazine blog, Daniel Drezner, professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, questioned whether today’s US moves will accomplish much of substance.

That does not mean that publicly calling on Assad to resign is a bad thing, said Mr. Drezner. Such rhetoric may serve as the policymaker’s equivalent of blowing off steam, releasing pressure that otherwise might drive the US toward more risky policy options.

“When the rest of the policy quiver has been exhausted, sure, why not call for Assad to leave? As a general rule, all else equal, I see no reason why the US government should not express its actual preferences rather than hide behind diplomatese,” said Drezner.

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