Why the world is quiet as Syria crackdown continues

The US vows to step up pressure on Syria to stop backing the extremist group Hezbollah, but it has done little to stop President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protesters.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, pictured here at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome Friday, also spoke in Italy about the US plan to keep pressure on Syria for political reforms.

The United States on Monday suggested it is using the current weak position of the Syrian government on the world stage to try to pressure it into dropping its support for Hezbollah, the extremist organization in Lebanon.

In an interview with the US-funded Radio Sawa, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said the US is demanding from the Syrian government that it immediately cease its assistance to Hezbollah and treat Lebanon as a friendly and sovereign country.

Aside from that development, however, the US – like much of the international community – appears to have adopted a muted response to Syria in the wake of its continuing crackdown on dissidents.

Officially, the Obama administration says that unlike Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, President Bashar al-Assad still has time to reverse his repressive stance and undertake the political reforms he has promised.

Behind the scenes, however, the US and other countries worry about the repercussions if Mr. Assad were to fall. Moreover, they doubt that the international community would unify against President Assad.

The Libya effect

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview while traveling in Italy Friday that the Syrians “have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda.” In the interview with Rome’s “In Mezz’Ora” TV program, she added that the US would “continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard” on Syria.

But one key reason the US is not moving against Syria – for example, declaring that Assad has “lost legitimacy,” as it did in the case of Libya’s Col. Qaddafi – is that much of the international community may be wary of following the US a second time, some regional analysts say.

“There was a lot of discomfort in the end with the way the Libya case was put on an expedited path, and that has led to a heightened caution about rushing to action” in the case of Syria, says Melissa Labonte, a Middle East expert at Fordham University in New York.

Only about two weeks separated the first United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya from the “no-fly-zone” resolution that opened the way to NATO intervention in the conflict – virtually the speed of light by UN standards, Professor Labonte notes.

She adds that two other factors – the absence of Qaddafi’s brand of threatening rhetoric in the Syrian case, and the absence of any call for action from the Arab League – also explain the international community’s tepid reaction.

Humanitarian mission thwarted

The measured response seemed to continue Monday.

At the United Nations in New York, a UN spokesman said Syria is refusing to allow a UN humanitarian mission access to the city of Deraa, where Syrians troops reportedly killed and detained hundreds of citizens during recent antiregime protests.

Although Assad told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last week that he was open to such a mission, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the UN mission has so far been thwarted in its efforts to visit Deraa and “other areas of Syria.” He said the mission would continue to try to gain access to the areas “in the coming days.”

In Congress, signs of impatience with the Obama administration’s “give Assad a chance” approach are beginning to surface.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut said last week that many in Syria and around the Middle East believe the US is “hedging its bets” over the outcome in Syria. It is time for President Obama “to do as he did so effectively in the cases of [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak and Qaddafi,” he added, and declare that “Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead Syria.”

Fordham’s Labonte says the appearance of a double standard in the application of international standards might only encourage leaders to flaunt them.

“There may be explanations” for varying applications, she says, “but if they’re not going to apply the principles consistently, that opens the door to people wondering, ‘What do they really mean?’ ”

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