Is the White House Gearing Up for Action on Syria?

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A worsening death toll, new Arab League action, and Russia's sudden change in position might provide an opening for an international response

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Secretary of State Clinton meets with a small group of expatriate Syrian opposition members in Geneva on December 6 / Reuters

The White House press office has just released an unusually strong statement calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has this week conducted some of its most brutal attacks against civilians yet, step down. "The only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power," it reads. "The Assad regime has demonstrated that it does not deserve to rule Syria." This isn't the first time the U.S. has used harsh words against Assad, but the timing -- and the sudden tone shift in this new statement -- suggest that the White House might be laying groundwork for something more than a press release.

The statement, like past U.S. comments on the country's conflict, leans heavily on international collaboration and agreement on Syria. It puts the U.S. strongly against Assad, but does so by putting America's weight behind the Arab League, which is rapidly taking a more proactive approach to Syria. This looks an awful lot like the "leading from behind" that President Obama used to organize support for the intervention in Libya, when he put the Arab League out front, something that made it much easier for the United Nations to approve the kind of multilateral intervention that Russia and China would normally be able to block.

Syria's violence, by far the bloodiest and most brutal of the Arab Spring, has worsened dramatically in recent weeks. Over 100 people were reported killed over the last three days alone, a rapid escalation in the already severe death toll. The Arab League, which before this year was more likely to protect Arab dictators than pressure them, has taken the extraordinary step of sending observers to Syria.

It will be almost impossible for the Assad regime to meet the Arab League's conditions without collapsing, which means that Syria will almost certainly continue to defy their demands, which include withdrawing all security forces, freeing all political prisoners, and allowing total media access. What's not clear is what happens when Arab League observers report all this back.

That moment may be exactly what the White House is preparing for in this statement. It's not clear what the U.S. is planning as its response, but this statement suggests that, whatever it is, it will require approval by the United Nations Security Council. The statement's second paragraph is a not-so-subtle jab at Russia, which has defended Assad by blocking any UN action. Or they were, at least, until very recently: last week, Russia introduced a shocking UN resolution condemning Syria, after months of blocking earlier resolutions that said the same thing. The move is probably meant, at least in part, to deflect international criticism of Russia's recent election fraud, and to placate Russia's quasi-allies in the West.

Without Russia to protect it from the United Nations Security Council, and with the Arab League moving closer to calling for Assad's exit (something that would make China, which has huge business interests in the region, far less likely to contradict the League's preferences), the White House may see the possibility for a moment when the international community might be willing, once more, to come together against a brutal Middle Eastern dictator. What exactly world leaders would come together to do -- humanitarian corridors? a no-fly-zone? -- is a separate question, as is the question of whether or not such action would even be a good idea. But the White House seems to be planning for the possibility that the biggest hurdle -- international opposition to action -- could finally, after thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of children murdered, be coming down.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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