Syria’s rhetoric backfires

President al-Assad's promises of electoral reform failed to quell the four-month-old uprising.

Massive new protests erupted across Syria this week after President Bashar al-Assad, in a supposedly conciliatory speech, blamed the country’s recent unrest on foreign-backed “saboteurs” and “vandals.” In his first public address in two months, Assad told a crowd of loyalists at Damascus University that he would pursue electoral reform and end four decades of totalitarian rule, but he gave no details or time frame.

Assad’s vague concessions failed to quell the four-month-old uprising, during which some 1,300 civilians have been killed. In Damascus, 300 demonstrators took to the streets after his speech, chanting, “No to dialogue with murderers.” In neighboring Turkey, where more than 10,000 Syrians have fled to escape the violence, crowds of refugees demanded Assad’s ouster, shouting “liar!” U.S. officials also dismissed the address as mere rhetoric. What’s important, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, is “action, not words.”

Assad’s address was “a desperate last-ditch effort to save an ailing regime,” said Max Fisher in The Atlantic. The dictator knows that his military is overstretched, and that international sanctions are hitting home. The very fact that he “felt compelled to make” such a speech—something fellow Arab despots in Egypt and Tunisia did “at their lowest points in the battles against popular protests”—is a sign that the “situation in Syria, though still bleak, could be rapidly turning.”

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President Obama could speed up that end game by declaring outright that Assad has “lost the legitimacy to lead,” said P.J. Crowley in The Washington Post. Until now, Obama has granted the Syrian leader the option of implementing reforms or getting “out of the way.” Now it’s clear that Assad will never back any reform that would drive “him and his cronies out of business,” so we should get “off the fence and on the right side of history.”

Obama has to do more than shake off his “cautious stance on the Syrian revolution,” said Pathik Root in He has to lead. Only the U.S. can push China and Russia to approve a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown, and get tough sanctions imposed on the “corrupt businessmen” propping up “Bashar the Butcher.” Obama doesn’t have the luxury of “waiting for someone else to make a move—it’s game time.”

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