Authors: Jeanette Torres
(NEW YORK) -- From calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a reformer to saying he must go and criticizing Russia directly for its support of the Syrian regime, 16 months of comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the crisis in Syria have seen her rhetoric intensify, as the bloodshed in Syria continues.
The U.N. estimates as many as 14,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, and shows no signs of slowing, with some officials now saying the country has descended into civil war. But the hope that Assad could meet the needs of his people was not out of line more than a year ago, says Tamara Wittes, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institute.
"When the uprising first began, there was a question of how [Assad] was going to respond," Wittes told ABC News. "Well, he chose to respond with violence and denial and de-legitimation of his own citizen's aspirations. So yes, the U.S. position evolved in response."
Over the last several months the harshest rhetoric has shifted from being directed to not only Assad but to Russia, with Secretary Clinton and other U.S. officials calling out the country for its continued support of Syria, including the shipment of weapons. Wittes says that reflects an acknowledgement that Assad will not likely change his mind on his own.
"For him this is now an existential battle," says Wittes. "He knows, just of all of his know that there is no future for Syria with him in charge."
But Wittes says a focus on pressuring Russia won't likely be enough to force Assad to step down, and in the meantime the violence continues to spin out of control.
"While it may be helpful to put pressure on Russia, it can't be the sole focus of American diplomacy," says Wittes. Given the changing sectarian nature of the violence, Wittes says the United States and its allies on Syria need be "focused on what they can do to manage what's taking place on the ground today."
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio