From Egypt to Yemen, Arab unrest has created dilemmas for the Obama administration in terms of loyalty and policy. But the situation in Syria seems to pose a particular and puzzling riddle.
While anti-government protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen have challenged U.S.-allied regimes, anti-government protests in Syria threaten a regime that Iran would hate to see fall.
Thus, by the logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Washington would seem to welcome the growing protests in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, considered one of the region's cruelest. A longtime ally of Iran and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, Assad, as his father Hafez al-Assad before him, has never hesitated to employ brutal police state tactics to subdue his population. He has long aligned himself with the Middle East's anti-American, anti-Israel trifecta--Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas--as well as interfered repeatedly in Lebanon's internal affairs.
Yet, despite all of this, the United States still appears to view the Syrian unrest and the prospect of Assad's toppling with profound ambivalence. While issuing several statements condemning Damascus' crackdown against protesters, the Obama administration has not called on Assad to step down (as it did, for instance, with long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya).
The seeming ambivalence has several explanations. Reports initially suggested that the U.S. and its European allies didn't see the Syrian protests as having critical mass. Washington then became distracted by Libya and was eager to signal that international intervention there did not portend a U.S. appetite for military involvement in other Middle East struggles.
In recent weeks, Washington has also been moving to soothe relations with Saudi Arabia--which is deeply anxious that the United States chose not to prop up Egypt's Mubarak. Analysts surmise that while Riyadh does not have any particular love for Assad, it isn't eager to see another democratic revolution in the neighborhood nor further dramatic changes to the region's status quo. What's more, Israel also has an ambivalent view of Assad: on the one hand a sworn enemy, on the other, judging him to be a more pragmatic and familiar foe than any replacement.
Yesterday, however, as protests spread to the key city of Aleppo near Syria's northern border with Turkey, the United States seemed to shake off its ambivalence, and charged Iran with giving material support to the Assad regime's crackdown.
"We believe that Iran is materially assisting the Syrian government in its efforts to suppress their own people," an Obama administration official told the Wall Street Journal.
"Tehran is providing gear to suppress crowds and assistance blocking and monitoring protesters' use of the Internet, cellphones and text-messaging," the paper reported, saying intercepted communications show Tehran "actively exploring ways to aid some Shiite hardliners in Bahrain and Yemen."
"If Syria is turning to Iran for help, it can't be very serious about real reform," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday.
Though the Syrian Foreign Ministry denied the claim -- telling the U.S. if it has such evidence to publish it -- Washington Syria watchers said they didn't find the allegation implausible. Still, they said, it focuses as much attention on U.S. motivations for the claim as on its veracity.
The U.S. "is under strong [domestic] pressure to start ratcheting up on Syria," said Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group. Thus, he posited, the U.S. allegation of an Iranian role in quelling Syrian unrest "checks several boxes at the same time," including those in Congress and domestically urging that the U.S. get tough on Syria and Iran.
"The problem at this point is you can't have one more [tough] U.S. statement on Syria without a comparison with Bahrain and Yemen and not make the administration look bad," Malley added, referring to the relative U.S. reticence about Bahraini repression and the decision by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send some 2,500 troops and police to assist Bahrain's Sunni leaders in quelling predominantly Shia unrest.
"Syria is very tricky for us," said Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center and a former senior National Security Council official.
While the United States "is actively worried Iran could be exploiting unrest in region, I don't think we yet have a clear position ourselves on the turmoil in Syria," Laipson said. "I don't think we have yet decided that there is some alternative to Assad that we can embrace and support in some way."
Still, the new-found U.S. urgency comes as the Syrian unrest is taking on an increasingly sectarian nature, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Politics.
Syria has a Sunni Arab majority; Assad is from Syria's Alawite minority (a breakaway sect from the Shiite branch of Islam, predominant in Iran). The United States--as well as its Sunni allies in the region--is concerned about growing violence between Syria's Alawite and Sunni populations, Tabler said. "The specter of that is very frightening for the United States and also for other countries in the region," Tabler said. "That is the reason why the United States is being very careful in my opinion. Once that is on fire, it is difficult to put out, as we have seen in Iraq."
Assad was reportedly expected to go to Saudi Arabia Wednesday for a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah, but analysts later said the trip did not take place.
Tabler said that Assad is accused of recruiting Alawite mobs--what he termed "bands of irregular forces"--to attack Sunni protesters. Some anti-Assad protesters are reported to be shouting anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah slogans, he said.
On Thursday, in anticipation of large anti-regime protests in Syria on Friday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a frequent Assad Washington interlocutor, urged the Syrian president to show restraint and "seize the opportunity to open a process of real discussion to address the aspirations of the Syrian people."
The ambassadors of the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy and Germany also met with the Syrian foreign minister Thursday to urge restraint.
(Pro-Assad demonstration outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon: AP Photo.)