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The US has taken a decisive stand against President Bashar al-Assad after weeks of measured responses to Syria's crackdown on protest, signaling a shift from focusing on regional stability to more actively promoting democratic change, say news reports.
On Tuesday, in response to attacks on the US and French embassies, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Mr. Assad has "lost legitimacy" and that the US "had absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power." President Obama reiterated those statements later in the day.
But administration officials told The New York Times that the shift has been "weeks in the making" and could not be attributed merely to Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford's visit to the rebellious city of Hama and the angry Syrian response. Rather, it was a result of Assad's continued brutal crackdown on protesters and the political opposition.
Since the Syrian uprising began in March, rights groups estimate that more than 1,700 people have been killed and at least 20,000 arrested, according to Bloomberg.
"You’re seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people," Obama said on CBS Tuesday night. “He has missed opportunity after opportunity to present a genuine reform agenda. And that’s why we’ve been working at an international level to make sure we keep the pressure up.”
The turn against Assad means that the US administration has decided that maintaining the status quo – a power vacuum in Syria could cause problems with Lebanon and Israel and leave an opening for Iran – is not a worthwhile trade-off for helping keep Assad in power, the Times reports.
International opinion has also turned – the embassy attacks drew unanimous condemnation from the United Nations Security Council. Even Russia and China, who previously said they would veto a resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on protesters, were on board, the Associated Press reports.
On Wednesday a natural gas pipeline in eastern Syria was bombed. A human rights activist condemned the attack, adding that the opposition's tactics have been peaceful, according to AP. Little else is known about the origins of the attack.
The clashes at the embassies and the international outcry overshadowed another significant development: the release of the final statement from the national dialogue that met in Damascus earlier this week, the Washington Post reports. While it still falls short of what many protesters demand, it goes much further than any previous officially sanctioned document, calling for a revised constitution and the repeal of the clause that guarantees that Assad's Baath Party dominates the political system.
Reform and dialogue may have worked months or years ago, but they will no longer satisfy the escalating demands of the demonstrators who want a more comprehensive and democratic reconfiguration of how political authority, security operations, and economic power are managed. It also seems clear that major foreign powers are now nudging and even pushing the Syrian leadership to consider such fundamental changes, which would be unprecedented in modern Arab history. Genuine democratic self-transformation has never happened at the hands of incumbent Arab regimes in modern times. The chances of Syria being the first example of this are slim.
He speculates that three outcomes are possible: a continued crackdown; a return to dialogue with the government as the opposition is exhausted, keeping Assad's regime in power; or a "sustained revolt" that ultimately ends with Assad's removal.