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An unclear liaison: The United States and Syria

While NATO continues its mission to protect Libyan civilians, protesters in Syria are left to their own devices. Critics say the US is missing a trick to come between Damascus and Teheran.

Protesters shouting

Anti-government protesters in Syria

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked headlong into a quagmire last week, when she publicly suggested that Syria's president Bashar al-Assad was a "reformer." The remark, made during a television interview, was given as one reason for America's decision not to get involved in Syria in the same way it has in Libya.

After widespread condemnation of her comment on the Syrian leader, who ordered a violent crackdown on anti-regime protesters, Clinton backpedalled, saying she had been referring to the opinions of lawmakers who had met with Assad. She was not, she added, speaking on behalf of the Obama administration.

It was an uncomfortable moment, which sent a mixed message to anti-government protesters in Syria. There besides, says Heiko Wimmen, Middle East and Africa Research Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, it was an indication that the US does not know enough about the situation to take a clear stance.

"There are many unknowns in the Syrian equation," he told Deutsche Welle. "In the case of Libya there was very quickly a challenge in terms of civil resistance, of people picking up weapons and fighting the regime. In Syria it is different."

A real revolution?

Supporter of President Bashar Assad holds a poster of Assad

The president has his supporters as well as opponents

He says the lack of US clarity essentially mirrors the uncertainty within Syria itself as to exactly what al-Assad is up against. "The bottom line is that we don't know what kind of challenge the regime is facing and whether it could develop into a sectarian conflict."

Given the country's religious and ethnic richesse, there is scope for just such violence. Some commentators say it is an understanding of that very volatility which has prevented the Syrian protest movement from gaining the kind of momentum that could force change.

Layla Al-Zubaidi, Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Middle East Office, questions whether there is enough commitment to the protests in Syria to earn the events the title of "revolution."

"Large parts of society are afraid and religious minorities are concerned that it might turn into another Iraq. People feel it might be better to have some stability, if not democracy, than a situation where they cannot defend themselves."

Divided opinions

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama does not favor getting involved in Syria

Nobody wants civil war in the Middle East, least of all the US. But opinions on the path Washington should tread are divided. The Obama administration has called on Damascus to rein in its forces which are believed to have killed more than 150 people in recent weeks, but Republican Senator John McCain and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman have urged him to back protesters.

One of the arguments in favor of stepping in to help regime opponents is that an end to Bashar al-Assad's 10-year rule would rob Iran of its closest ally in the region. And that, in turn, would put a stop to Damascus supplying weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, and aiding the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.

There is nothing new about talk of disentangling Syria from Iranian influence, and Obama has tried to pull it off in the past, but Layla Al-Zabaidi says it won't work.

"Iran is a neighboring country, why should they disengage their political alliance? Syria does not need to be saved from the Iranians, they decide for themselves who to ally with and they know how to assert themselves," she said.

Violent tendencies

A man walks though an empty street past closed shops

Shops closed in the southern city of Daraa after a violent crackdown

Wimmen believes any talk of toppling a regime is fundamentally irresponsible unless accompanied by a clear strategy which takes into account that regime's readiness to resort to violent repression.

"We have to assume that there is still an enormous capacity for violence," he said, adding that past experience has shown how in the face of external pressure Syria tends to baton down the hatches.

"Who would end up taking the blows?" he asked. "It would be the same people who are on the streets now, and I don't think anyone can take responsibility for them dying by the dozens if not hundreds."

Yossi Mekelberg, Associate Fellow with the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Program, says the best way for the international community to help protesters in Syria is to express support.

"When you rise up against a regime with a grim record of human rights, it takes courage and you feel isolated, you want to hear support for the plight of people who want more freedom and political and human rights," he said. "They're not expecting someone to do the job for them, but they would love to see more support.

Eastern over Western support

President Bashar Al-Assad and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

President Bashar Al-Assad and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Al-Zabaidi told Deutsche Welle that as far as she could tell, Syrian protesters are happy for the Western powers to keep their distance, but that they would like to see more support from their Arab neighbors. Compared to press coverage of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the movement in Syria has received very little attention, even from intellectual leftist publications in the region.

"They are not writing against the protesters but are taking a mediating role," Al-Zabaidi said, adding that the response to Syrian calls for reforms is so wishy-washy compared to the one received by other countries because there are not enough parties interested in changing the status quo there.

"Syria is the heart of pan-Arabism, the heart of resistance groups, and has great regional significance," she continued. "Other Arab governments would be cautious to contribute to a situation where the regime collapses and they don't know what might come along and replace it."

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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