As Syrian President Bashar Assad continues his hold on power, members of… (SANA / Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — Senior State Department officials came under tough questioning from lawmakers Wednesday over the Obama administration's reluctance to call for Syrian President Bashar Assad's departure.
Despite the Assad government's bloody crackdown on demonstrators, U.S. officials have shied away from calling directly for his ouster. They worry that the United States would end up looking weak if Assad managed to hang on in the face of popular pressure. And with American leverage limited in Syria, they also have been reluctant to raise expectations about what the administration might be prepared to do to unseat the regime.
At Wednesday's hearing, an unusual coalition of Republican and Democratic members of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee complained that the effort to carefully calibrate a message had failed to make it clear that America stands with pro-reform protesters against an oppressive regime.
"How many must die before we have the courage to stand up and say that Assad is illegitimate and he must go?" asked Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), the subcommittee's chairman. He noted that the death toll in Syria over the last four months was more than 1,600 demonstrators.
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) accused the administration of holding off on its strongest language until it was clear that Assad would actually fall. "We're hedging our bets here on the odd chance that he's going to be able to hang on," Ackerman said.
The lawmakers' complaints again illustrated the challenge the administration has faced in trying to craft a consistent message about American intentions as pro-democracy movements have swept through the Middle East and North Africa this year.
Administration officials insisted that they have left no doubt that the U.S. deplores Assad's brutal tactics and wants him to go. And they suggested — as administration officials have privately done in recent days — that the White House may yet deliver the definitive message that the lawmakers were demanding.
"I don't think it's fair to say we're standing still and hedging our bets," said Michael Posner, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, adding that the U.S. government had "absolutely lost faith" in the Syrian government.
Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, noted that when U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford visited a Syrian city in the midst of a demonstration recently, he was showered with flowers.
"People know where we stand," Feltman said.