In Syria, Assad must go

Having already killed as many as 1,300 of his own people, Syrian President Bashar Assad is now promising constitutional reform and an end to bloodshed. In a speech Monday, he called for a “national dialogue,” suggested that rival political parties would be allowed, and urged refugees to return from Turkey. His opponents were unimpressed, and thousands of protesters took to the streets after the address. If President Obama is similarly skeptical — as he ought to be — he should do what he has so far refused to do: call on Assad to step down.

The administration has assiduously avoided making such a declaration. In May, Obama said that Assad could either lead the transition to democracy or “get out of the way.” Then, in an executive order approving sanctions against Assad and his inner circle, Obama said he wanted to “‘increase pressure on the government of Syria to end its use of violence and begin transitioning to a democratic system that ensures the universal rights of the Syrian people.” After Assad’s latest speech, a State Department spokeswoman said, “What is important now is action, not words.”

All of these statements assume that it is not too late for Assad to lead Syria to a more democratic and pluralist society. But that scenario is improbable at best. Change in Syria will require change at the top.

The administration’s reluctance to call for Assad’s resignation may reflect a concern about parallels with Libya, where a declaration that Moammar Kadafi had to go was followed by a U.N.-authorized air campaign. Though ostensibly designed to protect civilians, the operation quickly mutated into an attempt to remove Kadafi. That’s a sobering precedent, but it needn’t determine what the U.S. does with Assad. Besides, NATO and the U.N. do not seem interested in a military campaign against Syria.


So what is the point of a statement by the United States that Assad most go if it doesn’t presage military intervention? The short answer is that it would put this country squarely on the side of those who are fighting for democracy in Syria and who realize that it cannot come about until Assad is gone. And although it shouldn’t get involved militarily, the United States can still exert leverage with additional, tougher sanctions and discussions with groups that might come to power in a post-Assad Syria.

The United States has been criticized for reacting with hesitancy and ambivalence to the so-called Arab Spring, especially in Egypt and Bahrain. But there is no reason to temporize when it comes to Syria. Obama needs to say the words “He must go.”