March 29, 2011

“MANY OF THE members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” Thus did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton respond to a question on Sunday about Bashar al-Assad, the latest Arab dictator to respond with fusillades to calls by his people for democratic change. At the time she spoke, more than 60 Syrians had already been massacred by Mr. Assad’s security forces; others have since fallen.

Ms. Clinton was only reflecting a piece of wishful thinking to which the Obama administration and its congressional allies have tenaciously clung: that Mr. Assad, despite his brutality, sponsorship of terrorism and close alliance with Iran, can somehow be turned into a Western ally.

Encouraged by hints that the 45-year-old Mr. Assad has dropped in meetings with congressional delegations and journalists, this theory supposes that the dictator is willing to break with the Hamas leaders he hosts in Damascus; that he will see that it is in his interest to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel; and that, his record to date notwithstanding, he truly wants to liberalize his regime. As recently as last November, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and frequent Obama administration surrogate who has met with Mr. Assad several times in the past two years, declared: “I remain absolutely convinced there is an opportunity to have a different relationship with Syria.”

Mr. Assad has never delivered on any of his hints — and now his security forces are openly slaughtering marchers in cities around the country. But on Tuesday his cabinet resigned, and his aides are promising that he will soon deliver a speech lifting a repressive emergency law and laying out other reforms. Consequently, the Obama administration and interlocutors such as Mr. Kerry have not yet given up on him. Says Mr. Kerry: “It’s a seminal moment. . . . You have to find out what they are prepared to do.”

We don’t believe that Mr. Assad could deliver on promises of reform even if he wished to. His minority Alawite sect, which represents only 6 percent of Syria’s population, would quickly lose power in a more democratic system. Most likely the dictator, like Mr. Mubarak before him, is seeking to deflect the demands for change with a mixture of violence and false promises. If that proves to be the case, the Obama administration, Mr. Kerry and others who have reached out to Mr. Assad should be ready to respond — by siding decisively with those in Syria seeking genuine change.

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