WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is preparing to explicitly demand the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad and hit his regime with tough new sanctions, U.S. officials said Tuesday as the State Department signaled for the first time that American efforts to engage the government are finally over.
The White House is expected to lay out the tougher line by the end of this week, possibly on Thursday, according to officials who said the move will be a direct response to Assad's decision to step up the ruthlessness of the crackdown against pro-reform demonstrators by sending tanks into opposition hotbeds. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.
President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials previously had said Assad has "lost legitimacy" as a leader and that he either had to spearhead a transition to democracy or get out of the way. They had not specifically demanded that he step down. The new formulation will make it clear that Assad can no longer be a credible reformist and should leave power, the officials said.
At the same time, the Treasury Department is expected to expand sanctions against Assad and his inner circle, adding several new companies to a financial blacklist that will freeze any assets they have in U.S. jurisdictions and ban Americans from doing business with them, the officials said. They would not identify the firms to be targeted.
Although the officials would only speak anonymously, the State Department on Tuesday telegraphed the planned shift in policy, saying the administration's two-year attempt to work with Assad, pull Syria out of Iran's orbit and transform it into a regional partner for peace and stability is over.
"You can't have any kind of partnership with a regime that does this kind of thing to innocents," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
The assessment in some ways confirms the obvious, coming as Assad's government presses on with a bloody crackdown on Syria's opposition in the face of mounting international pressure. More than 1,700 people have been killed, according to activists.
Yet the bluntness of the message reveals the administration's exasperation with a regime it has tried to reach out to despite a history of tense relations stemming from Syria's close ties to Iran, and the Assad dynasty's support for Shiite militants who have fought Israel and U.S.-backed governments in Lebanon.
Bashar assumed power in 2000, succeeding his late father, Hafez Assad, who had seized control of the country three decades earlier. A trained eye doctor, the son has spent years portraying himself as a reformer while doing little to expand civil freedoms and democracy. The unrest has prompted symbolic concessions from the government, but they've been accompanied by further examples of brutal repression.
Nuland said Obama and his team came into office two years ago seeking to "turn the page and have a fresh start in many places where relations had been difficult."
The policy with regard to Syria has been unpopular with many in Congress. Republicans in particular have assailed Obama's decision to appoint an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year absence, calling it an unwarranted reward for the Assad government's anti-American positions. Their criticism has grown stronger as Syria's violence has continued.
The administration has reacted defensively, insisting that Ambassador Robert Ford was providing valuable information on the tumult across Syria while offering U.S. solidarity with the protesters and an incentive for change to the government — better ties with the United States if it would follow the example of Egypt and begin a democratic transition process.
As Obama put it in May, Assad had the choice to "lead that transition or get out of the way."
Yet he's done neither.
Nuland said the U.S. engagement with Syria was now essentially limited to telling Assad that "what he's doing is disgusting, is abhorrent, is dangerous and is taking his country in the wrong direction."
"In the case of Syria, the message from 2009 was: If you are prepared to open Syria politically, if you are prepared to be a reformer, if you are prepared to work with us on Middle East peace and other issues we share, we can have a new and different kind of partnership," she said. "And that is not the path that Assad chose."
Nuland said it takes two for engagement to yield results.
"If you offer engagement and ... your partner chooses to spend their time and energy repressing and violating the human rights of their own citizens, in any such situation there are limits to what the U.S. can do," she said. "We're seeing it in Syria now."