The Obama administration has toed a cautious line with regards to Syria. After all, the odds are against Assad falling out of power, even in light of Tunisia and Egypt. Furthermore, Obama's call for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to step down has committed the US to an unpopular NATO-led intervention there. But Syria is not Libya by any stretch of the imagination, and the administration is correct to approach each situation on a case-by-case basis.
At a press conference yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that expectations the Assad government can change are, "if not gone, nearly run out." She added that the US was working behind the scenes to cobble together an international consensus on how to react to Syria. But even senior IDF officials, not known for being spurious or optimistic in their thinking about Arab regimes, see the Assad regime as terminal, according to a Haaretz article today. This statement, while made anonymously, demonstrates that international consensus on Syria need not be cobbled together. It already exists.
Therefore, the President of the United States should publicly call upon Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.
There is no question that Assad has forfeited his legitimacy as ruler given the way he has treated his own people. The administration's concern about future US-Syrian relations is both legitimate and well-placed. However, Bashar Assad is highly unlikely to make any reform overtures to the United States if he remains in power. If anything, he would make overtures to Iran, which is actively intervening on his behalf in the country.
Furthermore, in this era of change, it is high time for the United States to demonstrate clearly that its partners and allies in the region are not only the rulers, but the Arab people as well. Calling for Assad to step down will be a positive step for US-Arab relations not only in Syria, but throughout the Middle East. A call to step down need not be followed up with a Libya-style UN vote or a no-fly zone to be effective. Calling for President Assad to leave will revitalize the protests, and delegitimize the regime and those who assist it. It will also strengthen US leverage in efforts to coordinate internationally on Syria, not weaken it.
As Secretary Clinton realizes, reform in Syria is an option long since relegated to the dustbin of history. Efforts at reform in Syria have been confounded by a combination of Syrian mistrust, Iranian interference, and US policy elsewhere in the region. There is room for debate over why reform in Syria failed, but little argument that it was, in fact, unsuccessful. The best chance for Syrian reform moving forward lies not in a regime which is pulling off the fingernails of its people, but in the country's citizens who seek the basic freedoms which the US has committed itself internationally to defending.