Supporters of Bashar Assad's government demonstrate on his behalf… (Bassem Tellawi, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — After sharply escalating its criticism of Syria's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, the Obama administration has abruptly scaled back its condemnations, showing fresh uncertainty about its willingness to confront President Bashar Assad's regime.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared last week that Assad's government had "lost legitimacy," diplomatic language that implied a break with the government in Damascus. Analysts said they expected the White House to demand Assad's ouster, as it did earlier this year with Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
But Clinton backed off on Saturday, saying the administration still hopes that Assad's regime will stop the violence and work with protesters to carry out political reforms. On Monday, European Union ministers also called on Assad to implement reforms and made it clear they still hoped he would do so.
The change in tone reflects the continuing debate over whether Syria's ruler is likely to survive the current turmoil, and how best to use the limited diplomatic tools available to pressure him.
For now, a State Department official said, it's unclear whether the administration will ramp up the rhetoric and officially call for Assad's departure.
"Whether we take it farther will depend on events on the ground," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "We need to think through carefully what we say."
The administration has struggled to send a consistent message since antigovernment protests exploded across the Arab world in January.
U.S. officials are increasingly unhappy with the government crackdown in Syria, which has caused more than 1,500 deaths, but worry that Assad's ouster could stir chaos in the country and destabilize a crucial corner of the Middle East.
Critics say such caution has produced a muddle. U.S. policy on Syria "is increasingly inconsistent and unintelligible," Elliott Abrams, one of former President George W. Bush's policy architects, wrote in a blog posting on the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations website.
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based think tank, said the administration's mixed messages reflect its uncertainty.
"They would like to see him go, but they are not sure how that's going to come about or what it would mean," he said. "They're hedging a bit."
Syrian activists and their supporters were encouraged last week when the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, unexpectedly visited the opposition stronghold of Hama and met with protesters. The highly publicized visit appeared to be a direct challenge to Assad's regime.
Then, after a pro-Assad mob broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Damascus, Clinton angrily told reporters that "from our perspective, he has lost legitimacy." That sparked speculation that President Obama would call for Assad to step down.
But U.S. officials said no such decision had been made. And the next day, Obama appeared to soften Clinton's criticism. "Increasingly, you're seeing President Assad lose legitimacy in the eyes of his people," he said.
U.S. officials say that although some administration officials, including Clinton, have pressed for a more forceful policy, others argue that the administration would look weak if Obama called for Assad's departure and nothing happened.
Obama has been demanding that Kadafi give up power in Libya since March, and the U.S. military is backing the North American Treaty Organization's air war against Kadafi's forces. But the Libyan leader remains in power.