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NYT: White House, in Shift, Turns Against Syria Leader


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The Obama administration, after weeks of urging Syria to carry out democratic reforms and end a brutal crackdown, has now turned decisively against President Bashar al-Assad, saying that he has lost legitimacy and that it has no interest in Mr. Assad keeping his grip on power.

President Obama, in an interview Tuesday with the “CBS Evening News,” stopped short of demanding that Mr. Assad step down. But administration officials said the president may take that step in coming days, as he did with Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, much earlier in that country’s popular uprising.

Mr. Obama’s comments, and even stronger ones by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, showed that the administration has now concluded that Mr. Assad is no more willing or capable than Colonel Qaddafi of opening a dialogue with protesters or overseeing a political transformation.

The turning point in the administration’s public posture came after angry crowds attacked and vandalized the United States Embassy in Damascus, and the residence of Ambassador Robert Ford, after his visit to Hama, the hub of the current protests and site of a bloody crackdown by Mr. Assad’s father in 1982.

But administration officials said the shift has been weeks in the making, as Mr. Assad’s government has continued to harass and jail demonstrators, quash peaceful protests, and clamp down attempts to organize a political opposition. The crackdown has also begun to threaten regional stability with thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing across the northern border into Turkey.

“You’re seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people,” Mr. Obama said to the CBS anchor, Scott Pelley. “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.”

On Monday, Mrs. Clinton said, “If anyone, including President Assad, thinks the United States is secretly hoping that the regime will emerge from the turmoil to continue its brutality and repression, they are wrong. President Assad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power.”

Mrs. Clinton’s comments seemed calculated to answer critics who pointed to the striking difference in how the administration responded to Libya and Syria — and contended that it has acted too gingerly toward Mr. Assad, fearing that his downfall would destabilize other countries in its neighborhood.

Administration officials said they had no choice in Libya: Colonel Qaddafi is notoriously unpredictable, and had threatened to send his troops house-to-house in Benghazi, killing his opponents. In Syria’s case, there is no military remedy. NATO nations have no interest in acting in Syria, and there is no chance of a United Nations Security Council resolution equivalent to the one that NATO is enforcing in Libya. Russia has made clear it would reject any resolution condemning Mr. Assad.

Unlike Libya, Syria is a force in the region, one that the administration once thought could be drawn away from Iran’s orbit and play a part in an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Some critics, however, have always contended that it was naïve to assume that the Assad government could be a force for peace.

Still, until recently some American officials argued they were better off with Mr. Assad in power than with a power vacuum that could threaten the stability of Lebanon and security of Israel, and might be filled by Iran. But now that Mr. Assad “has shown definitively he has no interest in reform,” one senior official said, “the rationale for holding on to him has evaporated.”

The United States, officials said, is readying fresh sanctions against senior members of the Assad regime, and is weighing sanctions on Syria’s oil and gas industry. It is also watching a meeting of opposition groups set for this Saturday, which officials said could offer hope that the opposition — disorganized and lacking in leaders after decades of repression — is developing a viable transition plan.

Mr. Assad, officials cautioned, was far from being toppled. On any given day, they said, his government or the opposition holds the upper hand. But the upheaval has badly damaged Syria’s economy. For the first time, a senior official said, “the government has admitted that this is a crisis.”

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Counting on reform from him was as foolish a wish as I have seen.

getting interesting


“We received reports that Syrian mission personnel under Ambassador Moustapha’s authority have been conducting video and photographic surveillance of people participating in peaceful demonstrations in the United States,” the department said.

The charges could spur the State Department to restrict the travel of the ambassador and other Syrian diplomats.

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