A hard road to Damascus

By comparison, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, even Libya, were relatively easy. But in Syria, an Arab power backed by neighbouring Iran, a proven nuclear proliferator and terrorist backer, the President faces a no-win choice as Washington has little leverage in Damascus after decades of mutual hostility.

The superficially simple solution, of calling for Bashar al-Assad to quit, risks unleashing a civil war. In a nightmare scenario, a Syrian collapse could push Israel and Iran into war that could quickly spiral into a massive and uncertain American military intervention.

So the Obama administration has, so far, stopped short of calling for Mr. al-Assad to step down, a call that would almost certainly galvanize the bloodied but so far unbowed pro-democracy movement.

“Tanks and bullets and clubs will not solve Syria’s political and economic challenges,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “And relying on Iran as your best friend and your only strategic ally is not a viable way forward.”

But Ms. Clinton’s ultimatum was soft. “President Assad faces increasing isolation, and we will continue to work with our international partners in the EU and elsewhere on additional steps to hold Syria responsible for its gross human-rights abuses.”

In Egypt, Mr. Obama – secure in the knowledge of decades of intimate military co-operation – could push the aging and ailing Hosni Mubarak to quit, knowing that the Egyptian army provided a safe and allied pair of hands to manage the transition.

Tunisia was so small, so inconsequential and so socially stable that urging the president to leave was a push barely needed.

In Bahrain, pragmatism easily trumped principle. The Obama administration was struck mute when Saudi Arabia – a far more important, powerful and oil-rich ally – sent its troops to brutally crush the pro-democracy uprising.

In Yemen, a waiting game suffices. Muted calls for an end to violence are interspersed with silence about the leadership.

Even in Libya, the unpredictable Moammar Gadhafi offered a relatively easy path for the United States. Mr. Obama could demand the Colonel quit, provide a few days of modest “shock and awe” barrages of cruise missiles and then make the case that the United States was over-committed militarily and leave the stuttering bombing campaign mostly to the British and French warplanes under the command of a Canadian general wearing a NATO hat.

But the dangers in getting Syria wrong are far greater.

“Barbaric” is the newest and now often-repeated term bandied about by Obama administration spokespeople.

Under pressure, Mr. Obama’s spokesman can’t explain how Mr. al-Assad – the ruthless inheritor of one of the region’s most bloodstained regimes whose father once murdered 40,000 of his people as a lesson and whose tanks and snipers have killed an estimated 750 people in recent weeks – can be both barbaric and undeserving of a presidential call to quit.

(…)Increasingly on the defensive over perceived inaction on Syria, senior Obama administration officials insist the President is being tough. “We don’t throw the word ‘barbaric’ around here very often,” said Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman. “I don’t think we’re pulling our punches in any way.”

(…) Fear that Iran would take advantage of any collapse and chaos in Syria – a fear also being voiced in Israel – has so far limited Washington’s response to rhetoric and the slapping of sanctions on a handful of senior Syrian officials, but not Mr. al-Assad.

The above article was published in theglobeandmail.com on May 13th, 2011 (3:21p.m. EDT).

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