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Reform Just a Watchword in This Administration

Yet Turkey, the U.S., and others still seem to hope Assad will come around

Marc Tracy
August 16, 2011
Latakia, Syria, being shelled yesterday.(Reuters/NYT)
Latakia, Syria, being shelled yesterday.(Reuters/NYT)

Turkey, Syria’s neighbor and prime conduit to the West, issued its strongest condemnation of President Assad’s deadly, months-long crackdown yesterday. But Turkey’s foreign minister pointedly failed to call on Assad to step down, saying only, “This is our final word to the Syrian authorities: Our first expectation is that these operations stop immediately and unconditionally. If the operations do not end, there would be nothing more to discuss about steps that would be taken.” Nothing more to discuss about steps that would be taken … except what those steps would be. Witness brave reporter Anthony Shadid struggle with newsroom conventions, writing that these words “were the latest addition to a semantic exercise in diplomatic ambiguity.”

In fact, though, it is likely not mere semantics; rather, elements of Prime Minister Erdogan’s government probably still believe Assad is a reformer. A U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks revealed that, several years ago, such was the Turkish administration’s thinking: “the Turkish Embassy in Damascus views Assad as trying to reform Syria, especially economically, against an older generation of Baathists,” it reported. “The Embassy views Assad’s control as fragile; too delicate, added [an adviser], to enable him to engage in political reform.” Sucks to be him, I guess.

And yet isn’t this what the United States thinks, too—that there is yet the possibility of refom? Isn’t that why the Obama administration sent Ambassador Robert Ford back even after the regime threatened its embassy and laid waste to Hama, where Ford had visited? (Here is an incredible report from that sorry city.) Isn’t that why President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron yet again called on Assad over the weekend to end the violence but not necessarily to step down? This as Syria sent its navy to shell—shell—its main port city? Thousands of civilians have been reported killed, thousands more disappeared; the United Nations says privately that military officers have ordered the execution of soldiers who disobey orders to fire on civilians.

In the HBO series The Wire, a corrupt mayor running for re-election repeatedly swears, “Reform is not just a watchword in my administration.” Yesterday, Syria confiscated the cellphones and ID cards of thousands of residents of that port city, Latakia, and forced them into a stadium, for God only imagines what purpose. Syria is not even pretending to reform anymore. So why do we still go along with the conceit?

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.