US & Canada

Why Washington is at a loss over Syria

Protesters in Damascus, 25 March 2011
Image caption A series of anti-government protests have been held in Syria over the past two weeks

The US seems to be scratching its head over how to handle anti-government protests in Syria, which is not an ally but is a big regional player, says the BBC's Kim Ghattas in Washington.

The White House has again condemned the use of violence against citizens demonstrating in Syria - but this time it included a line which was absent in its statement of 24 March.

The Obama administration on Friday said it applauded the "courage and dignity of the Syrian people".

The Arab revolutions have all been different but similar, and Washington's reaction too has followed roughly the same script but with some variations.

Apart from a constant mantra of support for universal values, statements by the White House or President Barack Obama have followed a similar crescendo pattern, starting with condemnation of the violence by governments, followed by applause for the protesters.

The next level has been determined by a calculation taking into account the size of the demonstrations, the intensity of the repression and American interests.

In Egypt, there was a call for an orderly transition when the US determined it could do without Hosni Mubarak; in Libya, there was a direct call on Muammar Gaddafi to leave when it became clear that allowing him to stay in any way posed even greater challenges than pushing him out.

Image caption Hillary Clinton has suggested the US does not see Bashar Assad in the same light as his father

In Bahrain, where Sunni rulers have faced off with Shia protesters, there have been continued calls for dialogue from an administration wary of losing what it sees as a rampart against growing Iranian influence in the region.

It's still unclear how the wind will blow when it comes to Syria, in terms of whether the protests will continue to grow in strength and the repression become bloodier but also whether the US will eventually call for Bashar al-Assad's departure or issue endless calls for dialogue while trying to push for internal reforms.

Washington seems at a loss about how to handle a potential revolution in a country which is not an ally but which presents it with both real risks and possible opportunities for regional US policies.

The Obama administration has continued to call on Arab leaders to implement genuine, substantive reforms to meet the aspirations of their people, including in Syria, both because it recognises the need for real change in the region and out of concern about the growing instability caused by frustrated expectations and violent repression.

The US was probably hoping that Mr Assad would offer the demonstrators enough concessions to appease them when he gave an address this week.

Instead, the Syrian president stared them down, vowed to fight till the end and accused Israel and indirectly the US, of being behind the unrest.

'Syria will change'

Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the speech was a severe blow to Washington's Syria policy so far, which has been partly based on the assumption that Syria was interested in making peace with Israel.

Washington believes this would allow it to peel Syria away from its allies in Tehran.

Image caption US congressmen disagree over whether Mr Assad is a reformer

It's an analysis long supported by Senator John Kerry, who last month said that if the peace process could be moved forward, Syria would have a different set of options than those it is sticking to now.

Syria, on the US state department list of state sponsors of terror, currently supports radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, is suspected of developing a covert nuclear programme and has in the past been accused of feeding the violence in Iraq by supporting a network of foreign fighters.

In the event of peace talks, said Mr Kerry in a talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "my judgment is that Syria will move, Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and the economic opportunity that comes with it".

Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated Washington did not see Mr Assad in the same light as his father, Hafez, who ruthlessly crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982 in the northern city of Hama, killing thousands.

"There is a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," she said.

Mrs Clinton did not say the administration agreed that Mr Assad was a reformer and American officials have repeatedly expressed deep scepticism, but she did not add any caveats to the statement, despite the fact that the Obama administration has nothing to show for its efforts to engage the Syrian president for the last two years.

"Assad is not a reformer," said New York Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman in a scathing statement on Friday.

"Anyone who thinks so is at best fooling themselves, and at worst, serving as a useful idiot to a murderous dictator and a proud sponsor of terrorism."

Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, an independent, this week said a new Syria strategy was needed and "urged the administration to work with members of the international community to make clear to President Assad that if he continues on the path of repression and violence, it will carry serious consequences".

Sanctions pressure

It's likely that Mr Assad will have his own warning about serious consequences.

In the past, whenever Syria has come under pressure, Mr Assad has highlighted the positive role his country could play in stabilising Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories as a subtle way of hinting he also had the means to sew chaos.

Some analysts have suggested the crisis in Syria is an opportunity for the US to neutralise Damascus's ability to use those cards.

A Democratic aide on Capitol Hill said that if Mr Assad were to fall it might be a positive development because it could deprive Hezbollah and Hamas of crucial support.

Mr Tabler said Syria was not playing a positive role anyway and he dispelled the notion that the US or the international community had no leverage over Syria.

He said sanctions currently in place on Syria could be used to pressure Mr Assad and his inner circle into changing their calculations.

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