- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The State Department stopped short of calling for the ouster of Syria’s embattled president Tuesday after he delivered a two-hour speech railing against his Arab neighbors and blaming foreign plotters for inciting unrest in his nation.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland asserted that it is time for Bashar Assad to “step aside” but stressed that the U.S. is “not dictating how this needs to go forward.”

“We’re simply saying that in terms of our confidence that he can lead his country in a better direction, that’s over,” Mrs. Nuland said.

Despite weeks of mounting unrest in Syria and an increasingly violent crackdown on demonstrators by Assad security forces, Mrs. Nuland’s remarks indicate no change in the tune struck toward Syria by the Obama administration.

President Obama and other world leaders ramped up pressure on Mr. Assad with tightened sanctions in August, at which time Mr. Obama asserted that the time had “come for President Assad to step aside.”

The 10-month-old uprising against Mr. Assad, meanwhile, has entered a new phase over the past month, with the arrival in Syria of Arab League observers to monitor the regime’s implementation of a peace plan.

The monitors’ arrival last month coincided with an uptick in disparaging remarks by U.S. officials toward Mr. Assad, including from Mrs. Nuland, who last week accused the Syrian government of exploiting the monitors to give a false sense of security to demonstrators.

“The regime is actually putting out its own false reports that monitors are on the way, demonstrators come into the streets and then [government forces] fire on them,” she said.

Mr. Assad flatly denied such accusations during a two-hour speech delivered at Damascus University on Tuesday. “There is no order at any level within the levels of our country to shoot at any civilian,” he said.

Mr. Assad blamed his neighbors in the Arab League for engaging in a “conspiracy” against him and said that “regional and international parties who are trying to destabilize Syria can no longer falsify the facts and events.”

“Today, they’ve dropped their masks and we’re now in a position to take down the virtual world that they have created,” he said.