Anti-authoritarian protests in Syria, sparked by similar protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen during the "Arab Spring" of 2011, once again point out the dilemma of U.S.-Syrian relations.
Troops under Syrian President Bashar el-Assad have arrested an estimated 10,000 protesters and killed as many as 800, alarming human-rights advocates.
Bashar, who took control of Syria upon the death of his father, Hafez el-Assad, in 2000, promised liberal reforms of his government. That has not happened, and, given that Bashar is an Alawite Muslim, and Alawites are a distinct minority in a nation of mostly Sunni Muslims, he relies on a strong military to maintain power.
The United States categorizes Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism because of its support of Hezbollah (militant Shia Muslims in Lebanon seeking to keep Israeli troops out of that country) and Hamas (militant Muslims, largely Sunni, operating in the Gaza Strip and West Bank areas of Israel seeking a Palestinian state). Syria also has close ties to Iran and suspected links to Al Qaeda.
As such, the U.S. has placed a variety of economic sanctions on Syria. Because Syria has stronger trade and financial ties with Iran and the European Union, those sanctions appear to do little good. They also leave the United States with little apparent leverage to counter the current Syrian crisis.
Could a US/NATO Libya-style intervention in the Syrian crisis be in the offing? One writer thinks absolutely not.
Yochi Dreazen, writing for The Atlantic's website May 13, said there is great difference between intervening in Libya and intervening in Syria. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, he said, has a relatively poor defense system and has few global friends willing to come to his aid.
"That's not the case in Syria, which has a large and modern military with advanced Russian-made air defense systems," writes Dreazen. "Syria, along with its allies in Iran, also exerts effective operational control over Hezbollah, the highly-trained Lebanese militia that fought the vaunted Israeli military to a standstill in 2006 all while pelting civilian targets in northern Israel with hundreds of rockets."
In short, the stakes for the United States and its allies are much higher and more dangerous in Syria.
In 2009 President Barack Obama's administration began more open discourse with Syria than under previous presidents. Still, U.S. foreign policy toward Syria seems to be divided between trying to entice Syria away from Iranian influence and hoping the spirit of "Arab Spring" will topple Bashar.
Yochi Dreazen, "Why the U.S. Won't Act on Syria," The Atlantic.com, May 13, 2011; Jeremy M. Sharp, Syria: Issues for the 112th Congress and Background on American Sanctions, Congressional Research Service, April 28, 2011;"U.S. Trade and Financial Sanctions Against Syria," Embassy of the United States, Damascus, Syria, accessed May 15, 2011. See also "Experts Note Differences in U.S. Approach in Syria, Libya," USAToday, May 16, 2011.