DOHA, Qatar — As Bashar al-Assad's shock troops storm cities and towns across Syria, leaving a death toll in the triple digits that has only stoked the fires of rebellion even hotter, Barack Obama's administration is stepping up measures aimed at fatally weakening the Syrian dictator's regime.
Critics of the U.S. president's policy, particularly on the right, have long charged his administration with being soft on Assad. But the United States is now unequivocally committed to his ouster, having lost whatever little faith it had in the Syrian leader's willingness to reform. "He is illegitimate," a senior administration official says flatly. "We've definitely been very clear that we don't see Assad in Syria's future."
To that end, the administration is working closely with its European allies and Turkey, seeking to steadily ratchet up the pressure on a regime that analysts, including within the government, increasingly see as doomed. "All of the factors that keep the regime in power are trending downward," the senior official says, pointing to a swiftly collapsing economy and worsening "cohesion" within the regime. "Assad is in on every decision, without a doubt, but as time goes on there's more infighting."
So far, the revolt has mostly taken place outside the seat of power, beginning in rural towns like Daraa and spreading to larger hubs such as Hama and Homs. But as the demonstrations creep closer to the regime's strongholds in Aleppo and Damascus, the State Department is seeing signs that a number of Assad's supporters, including Christians, some Alawites, and a few big Sunni businessmen, are starting to distance themselves from the regime because they are starting to assess the president as a liability -- a view the U.S. Embassy in Damascus is assiduously trying to cultivate behind the scenes.
But Syria is, to borrow a phrase from White House advisor Samantha Power, a problem from hell -- a brutal state with a fragile ethnosectarian makeup that straddles the region's most dangerous fault lines, from the Sunni-Shiite divide to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unlike Libya, Syria matters in regional geopolitics, and nobody has any illusions that Assad will go down easily. "It's going to get bloody, and it's going to be a slow-motion train wreck," warns Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Assad's fury has been felt most keenly in Hama, where his father famously killed thousands in the 1980s, and in Deir al-Zor, an eastern city on the Euphrates River that has slipped out of the government's control. Human rights groups say the death toll rose as high as 142 on Sunday, July 31, and activist Facebook pages displayed dozens of gruesome videos showing the bodies of those killed in the assaults, the vast majority of them in Hama, where government troops have been furiously shelling the city. Some of the dead were said to have been run over by tanks.