The illusion is gone.
With dozens of unarmed civilians reportedly gunned down Friday during the biggest protests yet in Syria, the Obama administration can no longer claim that Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Damascus, might be a reformer, a leader able to make a transition to democracy in this pivotal Middle East state.
Violence by Mr. Assad’s security forces in several cities has now forced tens of thousands of protesters to cross a threshold. While once they asked only for dignity and economic freedom, they now more openly and clearly called for an end to 41 years of rule by the Assad family.
The protests were the largest in five weeks for Syria, despite attempts by Assad in recent days to assuage public anger with moves that looked like reform.
He ended a draconian emergency law but then sent plainclothed gunmen to shoot protesters and make arrests arbitrarily. He replaced his cabinet, ousting the one reformer in his inner circle. He granted a general right to protest but then stated there is no “excuse” for any more.
The live bullets on Friday spoke louder than his dead words of reform.
Syria’s proponents of democracy now are more unified than ever. As in Egypt, they are even more determined not to resort to violence. A new national identity is emerging quickly, helping bring together a country long divided by religion and ethnicity.
“Syrians are one,” the protesters chanted.
The organizers, a group called the Local Coordination Committees, finally made their first statement this week. They demanded the release of all political prisoners, a dismantling of security forces, and “peaceful democratic change.”
Turkey, for instance, fears Syria’s minority Kurds might demand a state that appeals to Turkey’s Kurds. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want the protests to inspire a democracy movement there. Jordan and Lebanon worry about potential refugees and political ricochets. Israel simply fears a change in the status quo.
Iran, most of all, relies on Syria as an ally for its attempt to be a regional power and for support of anti-Israel groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran has reportedly supplied Syria with technology to suppress dissent and protests.
For two years, President Obama had hoped to win over Assad and motivate him to drop his alliance with Iran. Lately he hoped Assad would take a peaceful path to democracy.
But again and again, Assad has disappointed the US, even trying to build a secret nuclear power plant. His gunmen now kill protesters, even preventing them from going to hospitals, only to see the demonstrations swell week by week. Well over 200 protesters have likely been killed so far.
The West’s fence-sitting about Assad needs to end. The political tide is with the democracy forces, and once they take power, the US and others might have a friendly ally in Damascus if they side with the protesters now.
Mr. Obama’s grand strategy in the Middle East is to isolate Iran and end its nuclear program. He can have no better “weapon” for that than surrounding Iran with democracies.
Syrians want to create one.