President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had “lost legitimacy” for failing to lead a democratic transition, but stopped short of explicitly calling on him to step down.
It was the strongest language Obama has used against the Syrian ruler over his harsh crackdown on protests and echoed comments by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a day earlier.
“I think that increasingly you’re seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people,” Obama told CBS News in an interview. “He has missed opportunity after opportunity to present a genuine reform agenda.”
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said al-Assad “is not indispensable” and urged him to lead a transition to democracy.
The sharpened rhetoric follows an assault by al-Assad loyalists on the US and French embassies in Damascus, which drew strong condemnation by the United Nations Security Council.
Pressed on why Obama has not gone further and urged al-Assad to leave office, Carney told reporters: “There’s really a growing consensus among the Syrian people that this transition needs to take place and that President Assad is not going to lead it … The Syrian people will, should, be able to decide their own future.”
Limits of influence
The Obama administration has reacted cautiously to the Syrian government crackdown after working for the past two years to try to woo Damascus away from its alliance with Tehran, and remains mindful of the limits of its influence.
Aside from international denunciation, the only concrete response to the violence has been US and European Union sanctions against al-Assad, family members and aides.
Washington has also been worried about instability on Israel’s borders and wants to avoid another military entanglement in the Muslim world, where it is involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a Nato air campaign in Libya.
But with Monday’s assault on the US embassy by what the White House called “thugs”, US patience appears to be wearing thin with al-Assad, who has has been trying for four months to stamp out a broad popular revolt with troops and tanks.
“We’ve made that clear to the Syrian government, that it is their responsibility … to provide security for and to maintain security for foreign embassies,” Carney said.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the US ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, had met with Syria’s deputy foreign minister for talks with “a much more collaborative tone”.
Syria has accused the United States and France of distorting and exaggerating facts about the embassy attacks.
But Nuland said the United States would continue to discuss with allies possible further steps against Syria, including sanctions on its oil and gas sectors and potential referral to the International Criminal Court over the crackdown. – Reuters