August 10, 2011

THE ATTEMPT by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to save himself by slaughter seems to be near a tipping point. A massive offensive launched by his regime on the eve of Ramadan appears to have pacified, at least for the moment, the restive city of Hama. But the use of tanks and artillery against Hama and the eastern city of Deir al-Zour, at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives, has provoked an angry backlash by governments that until now quietly tolerated Mr. Assad’s repression.

The U.N. Security Council and the Arab League finally condemned the regime. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah demanded that the “killing machine” stop, and Kuwait and Bahrain joined the Saudis in withdrawing their ambassadors from Damascus. Turkey, the regime’s last lifeline to the West, dispatched its foreign minister to insist that Mr. Assad stop the offensive. Even the Obama administration, whose timidity on Syria has betrayed the president’s promise to support the cause of freedom in the Middle East, has been hinting that it may finally declare that Mr. Assad should leave office.

Two factors will sway which way Syria goes: whether the international pressure continues to mount and what effect it has on Syrian leaders outside Mr. Assad’s immediate circle. The latter is very difficult for outsiders to judge, though there have been signs of cracks in the regime, such as the sudden resignation of the defense minister on Monday.

What we do know is that Mr. Assad himself has no intention of heeding the demands that he stop the killing and introduce democratic reforms. He “will not relent in pursuing the terrorist groups,” the state news agency quoted him as saying after his lengthy meeting Tuesday with the Turkish foreign minister. That is a logical, if despicable, stance: Mr. Assad knows that if he allows Syrians free choice — or even if he stops assaulting them — he and his regime will not survive.

It is therefore worrying that the international response, though improving, remains inconsistent. Turkey is the leading example: Its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has condemned Mr. Assad for “pointing guns at his own people,” offered refuge on Turkish soil to civilians fleeing from the regime’s military offensives and pressed hard to stop the assault on Hama.

But Mr. Erdogan continues to offer leeway to a dictator he assiduously cultivated until a few months ago. On Wednesday, he said he expected that Mr. Assad would end the violence “within 10 to 15 days” and then “take steps for reform.” That seems to offer plenty of time for further murderous pacification of Syrian cities — and no specifics about what “reforms” the Turks believe are necessary.

This is the sort of situation in which the United States has historically stepped in to exercise leadership. But Mr. Obama has been passive throughout the Syrian crisis. He has spoken about it in public only twice in five months, while the State Department has performed an excruciating rhetorical striptease. It started with describing Mr. Assad as “a reformer”; a month ago the rhetoric finally progressed to calling the dictator “illegitimate.” But the last handkerchief — a demand that he leave office — has yet to drop. The time for those words is long overdue — and Mr. Obama should utter them, in person and in public.