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.

Muzaffar Salman / AP
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

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.

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.

Partly it may be because of the chance the call could ring hollow. The administration has called for Muammar Qaddafi to quit, for example, yet he remains hunkered down in Tripoli – a living example of the limits of the power of presidential words.

But the most profound reason may be a simple one: the administration is proceeding with caution on a geopolitical problem far more complicated than the Libyan situation.

Syria is a fragile nation that could break apart into sectarian warfare between its largely Sunni Muslim citizens and its minority elite of Alawis, an esoteric Islamic sect. Syria’s neighbors Lebanon and Iraq have both suffered such a fate in recent years, and as their experience shows, that would not be a pretty outcome.

Plus, Syria shares a border with Israel and remains important to the Middle East peace process. A Syria without Assad might not necessarily lead to an improvement in regional stability.

“A possible military regime in Damascus would not be a panacea,” wrote Washington Institute for Near East Policy experts Andrew Tabler and Simon Henderson in a recent analysis.

The administration appears loathe to get in front of its regional allies – notably Turkey and Saudi Arabia – on this issue. But as Ankara and Riyadh toughen their own words about Assad, the US may inevitably follow.

Unnamed US officials have told the Associated Press and other news outlets that a presidential statement about Assad could occur at any time.

“Syria is going to face increasing pressure if the violence doesn’t end,” said State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland on Thursday.

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