The Obama administration has stopped just short of demanding Assad’s ouster, but it appeared to be edging closer to that position Tuesday. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that “you can’t have any kind of partnership with a regime that does this kind of thing to innocents,” an indication that Washington is preparing for a final break with its two-year-old policy of engaging Assad.
U.S. officials are readying additional economic sanctions on Syria and are encouraging European countries to impose bans on its oil and gas sales. The coming days are also expected to bring renewed pressure at the United Nations for firmer action against Syria after a statement last week appealing for an immediate halt to the violence was ignored.
By sending tanks into the city of Hama and other rebellious areas, Assad may have been hoping to duplicate the tactics of his father, Hafez, whose successful suppression of an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982 left an estimated 10,000 people dead. It took weeks before the world found out, by which time an entire generation of Syrians had been cowed into silence.
But in an age of satellite television and instant communications, “they’re not getting away with it,” said Najib Ghadbian, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, who is active in the Syrian opposition.
“This regime is living in an isolated world, and they think they can get away with mass killings, but, on the contrary, it is only hastening their departure,” he said.
There is still no sign that Assad’s fall is imminent. Opposition hopes for significant defections from the army or divisions in the government have not materialized. The protest movement remains without leaders and has offered no plan for replacing Assad, other than to continue staging protests.
But the government can expect to confront escalating pressure not only from its domestic opponents but also the wider world.
The violence has strained Syria’s close relationship with Turkey, the country considered most likely to wield influence over Assad. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu emerged seemingly empty-handed from a six-hour meeting with Assad on Tuesday in Damascus, after issuing what the Turkish media called an ultimatum to stop the killing.
Davutoglu said only that the encounter was “friendly” and that he expected to see “concrete steps” in the coming days to end the violence.
Yet Assad remained defiant, saying Syria would not relent in its pursuit of “armed terrorists,” according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. And human rights groups reported that Syrian troops on Tuesday had launched a tank assault on a town near the Turkish border, even as bombardments and attacks on protesters continued elsewhere. The Local Coordination Committees, which organizes and monitors protests, said 34 people were killed across Syria on Tuesday.