Secretary of State Clinton has again stated that it is only a matter of time before the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad collapses. Speaking in Tokyo to reporters, she said: "The sand is running out of the hourglass," and went on to say, "There is no doubt that the opposition is getting more effective in their defense of themselves and in going on the offense against the Syrian military and the Syrian government's militias. So the future, to me, should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime: the days are numbered."
But what is the number? And could the Administration be doing more to move that number down? When it comes to Syria, this administration has a very elastic sense of time.
Right now, U.S. intelligence is helping the Syrian opposition in doing what for it is a nearly impossible task -- coordination -- but it seems that now would be the time to actually come to the aid of the Syrian people by protecting the safe havens they are already carving out for themselves on Syrian territory. Yes, of course, intervention of this sort has enormous risks -- and of course what follows the Assad regime could be very unpleasant. But: If the Administration's empty words on Syria have some truth to them (and there have been so many empty words that some of them must be true), which is to say, Assad's downfall is inevitable, it follows axiomatically that something -- a Sunni extremist government, some sort of fragile coalition among different ethnic groups, a softer-seeming Alawite regime with Assad's family gone, or generalized chaos and civil war -- is going to follow.
Wouldn't the U.S. want to have a hand in shaping that future? Wouldn't the U.S. especially want to have a hand in shaping that future given that the Assad regime is the only Arab ally of the U.S.'s foremost adversary in the region, Iran? If the U.S. could break Syria away from Iran in a permanent way, this would mark a huge victory for the Obama Administration's efforts to curtail Iranian malevolence. It won't have any influence at all in determining the future course of Syria if it does nothing. If it does take a more active stance against the Assad regime (and no, I'm not calling for a Libya-style intervention -- and by the way, I'm aware of the unintended consequences of that intervention, and I had been aware of them even before I read my old colleague Ross Douthat's very good column on that subject today), it will reap the benefits of coming to the aid of an oppressed Sunni population. President Obama, in his Cairo speech at the outset of his term, was trying to signal to the Arab world's Sunni majority that he was on their side. A stronger American push against Assad would signal that in actual deeds, not merely in words.