US policy on Syria 'depends on success in Libya'

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Bashar al-Assad (30 March 2011)
Image caption,
The Obama administration has increased pressure on Syria's President Bashar al-Assad incrementally

President Barack Obama called on Libya's Muammar Gaddafi to leave power at the end of February.

Almost three months, two UN resolutions and a Nato operation later, Col Gaddafi is still in power.

When Washington looks at Syria today, it fears a repeat; long drawn-out international pressure with no clear outcome.

There is no suggestion whatsoever that anyone would consider military intervention in Syria but the US and Europe, their hands full in Libya, are wary even of a purely diplomatic quagmire.

The call for Col Gaddafi to leave came within roughly 10 days of the big protests starting and reports of hundreds of people having been killed.

In comparison, the demonstrations in Syria have been going for more than two months, more than 1,000 people are reported to have been killed, and the Assad government has deployed tanks which are besieging, and shelling, towns.

Initially, the hesitation to put intense pressure on Syria was driven mostly by the hope that Mr Assad could still prove himself a reformer.

Hope for peace

The Syrian president had carefully cultivated that image. He introduced limited economic reforms during several years and promised more changes.

He sounded reasonable to all his foreign visitors, many of whom also held on to the hope that Mr Assad could eventually be peeled away from his Iranian allies and convinced to sign a peace deal with Israel.

Image caption,
Protesters against President Assad have paid a high price for their defiance

So the Obama administration increased pressure on Syria incrementally. First, it issued statements, condemning the violence and calling for reforms.

It slowly showed more support for the protesters, while still calling for reforms.

At the end of April, the US and the EU imposed sanctions on members of the Syrian leadership, including the president's brother, Maher and his cousin, Rami Makhlouf.

Unlike with Muammar Gaddafi - who is disliked by most other Arab leaders - there have been no calls from Arab countries for increased international pressure on Syria.

Its borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Turkey make Syria a much more challenging case for the US, but also for regional players.

'Devil we know'

The lack of Arab enthusiasm for pressure on Mr Assad allowed the US and the EU to move more slowly.

While Syria and Israel are still technically at war, there is a certain modus vivendi between the two countries that has kept the border between them quiet for decades.

Israel's attitude has been one of "better the devil we know", though there are some signs that Israel is beginning to think about the possible advantages of a post-Assad Syria.

Image caption,
President Assad's actions reveal his true intentions, says US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

In Washington as well as European capitals, the consensus seems to be that Mr Assad's days are numbered even though there is no decision to call on him to go.

While the West decided it could never work with Col Gaddafi again, there would still be a willingness to work with Mr Assad if he suddenly made concrete, genuine efforts towards dialogue and democracy.

The US and its Western allies also do not want to call for the departure of another leader and find him still sitting in his presidential palace weeks later, said a European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

"If we want to address Syria, we have to deal with Libya first," said the diplomat.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a long time Syrian dissident who has been living in exile in the US since 2005, suggests the administration is slowing down the process that would lead to calls for Mr Assad to leave - trying to buy time "while they try to finish things in Libya".

Only last week did US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make the direct link between Mr Assad and the violence, saying he talked about reform, but his actions showed his true intentions. Washington subsequently imposed sanctions on Mr Assad himself.

'One last chance'

On Thursday, Mr Obama went further in his Middle East speech at the state department, calling on Mr Assad to lead the transition to democracy - or leave.

But he stopped short of calling on him to step down, or of saying the Syrian president had lost legitimacy.

Image caption,
Protesters are pictured fleeing gunfire on the main street of Homs, Syria's third city

Again he left the window open but raised the bar higher for what Mr Assad had to do to survive in the eyes of the international community.

On Tuesday, Mrs Clinton made another reference to that window.

"Assad has said a lot of things that you didn't hear from other leaders in the region about the kind of changes he would like to see. That may all be out the window, or he may have one last chance," she said.

Mr Abdulhamid acknowledged that another reason why the US has refrained from calling on Mr Assad to go is its uncertainty about a post-Assad future.

"They don't believe he's a reformer, but they can't see an alternative," he said.

A large number of opposition groups are now reportedly planning to meet in Turkey at the end of the month, to attempt to elect a transitional council, connect with protesters inside the country, and present the international community with a clear alternative to Assad.

If they succeed, it would move the debate about Syria into a new phase.

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