Violence against protests in Syria: Why the mild US response?

Three weeks of protests in Syria have revealed the violent hand of the Assad regime, yet the US is not responding to this crisis in the same way it did in Libya.

In the four months since it first stirred, the Arab awakening has simply refused to be put to sleep. It seems that young people seeking freedom in the Middle East will not be denied once they have broken through heir own wall of fear.

The latest example is Syria, where protests against one of the most repressive regimes in the world are now in their third week – despite the killing of dozens of peaceful demonstrators. Friday’s protests – a “day of martyrs” – saw more violence by security forces in a number of cities.

What is rather sleepy is the Obama administration’s sense of moral outrage over these killings or its refusal to join calls by Syrians for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and his repressive Baath party. The ruler of Damascus is, after all, already well branded as a regional facilitator of terrorists for Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

The contrast of US action in Libya, where military intervention was justified on humanitarian grounds, is stark. Why is one massacre of Arab freedom-seekers different from another?

As President Obama has already promised the people of the Middle East: “Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.’’

The violent crackdown by Syria’s regime is not the only reason for a strong US response to help protect the lives of protesters. Syria, as a potential democratic state in the heart of the region with 22 million people, is far more important to American interests than is Libya. It is now the Grand Central Station for a number of conflicts, from Lebanon to Iraq to Gaza, and all done with Iran as an ally.

Just as US officials did with Egypt before the peaceful ouster of Hosni Mubarak, they still talk of Mr. Assad as a reformer. Yet his speech Thursday night in response to this string of protests that began March 15 did not ring with serious concessions of reform. Instead, Assad mainly saw foreign conspiracies behind the protests.

His strategy of intimidating protesters with violence is now clear. It reflects the tactics of his late father, who ended a rebellion in the city of Hama in 1982 by simply killing most of the 15,000 to 20,000 residents there.

This sort of tough, defensive response may be caused by the nature of the regime itself, which consists mainly of the 12 percent of Syrians who are Alawites, a secretive branch of Shiite Islam. They may see themselves as particularly vulnerable to the majority Sunni Muslims if there is a regime change.

Mr. Obama’s strategy seems to be to let neighboring Turkey set the tone and take leadership toward Syria. Yet the government in Ankara is hardly a bastion of freedom with its repression of media and its reluctance to rescue Libya’s rebels. Turkey’s ambitions to be a regional power are tainted by its own shortcomings as a democracy.

Stability in Syria – which Obama desires – can’t be achieved by US silence toward a government that has used live ammunition on young protesters chanting “peaceful, peaceful, freedom freedom.”

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