Did Obama's Speech Give Syria's Assad a Breather?

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President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department May 19, 2011 in Washington, DC.

The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used to be called "the great survivor." Syria's President Bashar al-Assad may be succeeding to the title.

Many observers had expected Barack Obama to use a much-anticipated speech on the Middle East to call for Assad to step down, much as Washington has demanded that Muammar Gaddafi relinquish power in Libya. The signs were not good: the day before, the U.S. had slapped sanctions on Assad himself as well as other members of the Syrian regime, which is in the middle of a bloody two-month crackdown against largely peaceful opponents. In recent weeks, the U.S slapped sanctions on the president's brother, Maher al-Assad, who heads the army's 4th Brigade, the unit that has largely been tasked with quelling the unrest.

During his speech, however, though Obama pointedly called Damascus an ally and beneficiary of the U.S. bête noire Iran, the American President told an audience at the State Department that the Syrian leader could still participate in a democratic transformation of the troubled nation. "President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way," Obama said.

Obama was, nevertheless critical of Assad. "The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara'a [the town where protests first erupted in mid-March]; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad." The U.S. President then hailed the courage of Syrian protesters and chastised a regime that has "chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens."

That was enough for some critics of the Assad regime. Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington D.C who attended the president's speech on Thursday, said Obama hit all the right notes when it came to Syria. "It was excellent. This is exactly what we are looking for," Ziadeh told TIME. "This will send a very courageous message to the Syrian people on the ground who are fighting for freedom, and for dignity, as President Obama mentioned."

For Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Europe-based rights group Insan (which means "human" in Arabic), the mere fact that Obama acknowledged the possibility of Assad leaving power, was a positive development. "The primary reaction to the speech is positive in Syria. It is welcome," he told TIME.

Other activists, however, were markedly less impressed. Syrian Jasmine, a prolific tweeter who disseminates information and videos of the uprising, complained in a tweet that "Obama is not brave enough to ask Assad to step down but who cares we will do it alone as SYRIAN, we don't need anyone's help." Syrian Jasmine told TIME via Skype: "Obama is now giving Bashar the green light 4 Bashar to do more killing."

George Jabbour, a former parliamentarian and advisor to the late President Hafez al-Assad (Bashar's father and predecessor), said the sanctions and Obama's speech were largely for a domestic U.S audience. "I heard Obama the candidate, I did not hear Obama the president. He was addressing America under the guise that he was addressing Arab revolutions," Jabbour told TIME from Damascus. The brief comments on Syria were nothing new, he said. "He repeated what one of his aides said [on Wednesday]." If anything, the slowly hardening U.S position on Syria posed more of a problem for the fragmented, leaderless opposition, said Jabbour who is sympathetic to the regime. "Serious opposition should more or less work together, on an agenda or something like that. But there are groups opposing other groups within the opposition, some of them are totally secular, some are totally religious, some welcome foreign intervention — even military — others feel foreign intervention deprives them of their Syrianness."

The lack of any obvious opposition alternative to Assad limits what Western governments, including the U.S, can do, says Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent U.S-based Syrian dissident. "We do want [Obama] to call on Assad to step down at one point soon, but that's not going to happen until Syrian opposition and activists get together and formulate a viable alternative to manage the transitional period. Only then can we expect world leaders to be more forthcoming in their calls on Assad to step down."

As for the sanctions, they will freeze overseas assets held by the Assads but are largely symbolic. Indeed, those measures were quickly dismissed in Damascus, which portrayed them as punishment for the country's anti-Israeli foreign policy. Sanctions "will not influence Syria's independent decision or its steadfastness against the American repeated attempts to dominate its national decision, nor will they influence its determination to achieve comprehensive reform," the state news agency SANA said on Thursday.

Perhaps the real indication of how the opposing camps in Syria received Obama's message will come on Friday following afternoon prayers, when protesters traditionally take to the streets in their greatest numbers. "If Assad responds violently to protesters [on Friday] the Obama Administration will have to react further," Tarif says. "I hope [Obama's speech] will contribute to an end of the crack down."