As the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad concludes its third month, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is coming under increasing fire for its slow, reluctant reaction. The administration continues to call on the Syrian president to lead a transition to democracy and argues that the United States simply lacks the leverage to affect the situation in Damascus. As one senior U.S. official told the Atlantic in May, "The Syrian government knows it can act with a certain amount of impunity because we have no real leverage over them."
Not all significant players agree with Washington. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have stated that Assad's rule is "illegitimate." Washington is lagging behind.
Against all odds and expectations, the Syrian revolt has spread to almost every part of the country. The spark that began in mid-March in the southern town of Daraa has extended to the Kurdish areas in the northeast, the mixed Sunni-Alawi coastal towns, central Syrian cities such as Hama and Homs, and even the suburbs of Damascus.
Initially, Washington was skeptical. An anonymous U.S. official revealed in April that the Obama administration's general assessment was that such a broad uprising "wouldn't happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud, and also that he was not afraid to be brutal."
Save for the last part, that analysis has proved wrong. Despite unspeakable brutality, including the wanton torture and murder of children, the uprising continued apace and quickly became a national movement whose demands have coalesced around toppling Assad. The protesters' chants have echoed the refrain heard in Tunis and Cairo: "The people demand the removal of the regime."
Yet even after its initial analysis proved wrong, the Obama administration hesitated to support the protesters. Syrian dissidents who met with administration officials in Washington in April relayed their overall disappointment with America's "lukewarm" response.
Lukewarm is the right word. Even as the administration moved to impose sanctions on senior regime figures, its reluctance was obvious. Anonymous officials lamented to journalists that, due to a lack of leverage, they doubted whether sanctions would have any tangible effect. "We already have sanctions," a senior administration official said in April. "We could pursue whether there are additional ways to tighten pressure, but I don't want to suggest there is anything imminent."
These lamentations are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The evolution of the Syrian uprising has presented Washington with a unique opportunity to squeeze Assad. The United States has leverage; it has simply chosen not to use it.
The first and easiest avenue for Washington to pursue would be to recall Robert Ford, whom Obama appointed as his ambassador to Damascus despite congressional objections. Bringing Ford home would be an obvious way to deprive Assad of the legitimacy that comes with relations with the world's only superpower. It would send an unambiguous message that the United States is done dealing with the Syrian regime. That message would embolden the protesters and dishearten Assad. Perhaps most importantly, it would send a clear signal to the silent majority in Syria, which is watching apprehensively and wondering who will win.