Are the Obama Administration’s delusions about the efficacy of engaging with the Assad regime finally falling away? Consider:
Friday, Ambassador Robert Ford (along with French Ambassador Eric Chevallier) visited Hama to lend support to the largest protest against Assad yet. Meanwhile, in Washington, the State Department announced an investigation into Syrian diplomats spying on anti-Assad protestors in the US to intimidate them by threatening their families in Syria.
On Sunday, in response to an anti-American demonstration on Saturday, Ambassador Ford issued a statement on the Embassy’s Facebook page rebuking the regime for allowing pro-Assad protestors to throw rocks at the US Embassy while “beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators” who oppose the regime.
Yesterday another protest got much more violent than the Saturday demonstration and the regime was clearly complicit:
According to one State Department official, the demonstrations were staged after a program broadcast Sunday night on the private pro-government al-Dunia television network, owned by Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s tycoon cousin. In the program, Syrians were urged to express their anger at the ambassadors’ visits to Hama.
“It seems to be something people were encouraged to do,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
A U.S. Embassy official, who was not authorized to discuss the subject and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that protesters arrived in buses and that Syrian security forces normally assigned to guard the perimeter of the embassy compound were slow to respond to U.S. appeals for help. In the meantime, about 10 demonstrators broke into the compound, destroying the main entrance, and three of them climbed onto the roof.
Once the protesters were inside the grounds, U.S. Marines confronted them, forcing them to flee. No protesters entered the embassy building.
“It was evident that the Syrian government orchestrated it using buses to transport and deliver the protesters,” the embassy official said, adding that Syrian security forces took at least an hour to disperse the crowd.
In response, Hillary Clinton finally — finally — dropped the pretense that Assad is going to lead a real reform:
“From our perspective, he has lost legitimacy,” she said, marking the first time the United States has called into question the validity of the Syrian president. Syrian officials would be mistaken, she said, in concluding that repeated U.S. calls for democratic reforms in Syria signaled a desire to see Assad continue his rule – a conclusion many Syrians have reached.
“President Assad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power,” she told reporters at the State Department.
This comes a bit late — the French and Israelis declared Assad’s rule illegitimate more than a month ago — and the fact that it comes only after an attack on the embassy, and not just as a response to the numerous attacks on protestors, will blunt the public diplomacy impact somewhat. Nonetheless, it’s a welcome step. But if the Obama administration really wants to get serious, there are a lot more steps to take. For a real diplomatic campaign against Assad, the administration would do well to heed these suggestions that David Schenker and Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy laid out last month.