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Syria Protests Are the Arab Spring's Silver Lining – Why Isn't the U.S. Trying to Do More for Democracy There?

Syria’s continued and ruthless crackdown on a popular uprising inspired by the Arab Spring continues to attract worldwide attention. 

The Assad regime's related government concessions including a cabinet shake-up, sacking of a governor and police chief, and Thursday's formal lifting of the emergency law in place since 1963 has been widely covered by the media. 

Despite all the coverage of events in Syria why has there been so little media attention has focused on the Obama administration’s lackluster support for the country's growing democracy movement?

Earlier this year President Obama threw his weight behind pro-democracy protests in Tunisia and Egypt -- helping to topple long-term U.S.-allied leaders. He then led military operations against Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and on Thursday he even approved the use of armed drones over the country. 

By contrast, he has been remarkably quiet on Syria, even though the country has been condemned by the United States for decades as a repressive and dangerous regime. 

So why aren’t we pushing harder for democracy there?

To better understand the answer and look at what should be done next, let’s take a closer look at Syria.

First, like several countries in the region, Syria is a shell of its former self -- both in terms of ancient glory and former boundaries.

Just like Egypt and Iraq, Syria was also once home to an impressive empire – its capital Damascus was the seat of power for the Umayyad Caliphate, which stretched from Afghanistan to Spain in the 7th and 8th centuries.

And like the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, it saw decline and subjugation by outsiders – it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for roughly 400 years until its defeat in WWI. That followed decades of rule by European colonial masters.

While under Turkish rule, Ottoman Syria encompassed the modern day states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Jordan and Iraq.

Following independence from France during WWII, Syria entered a rocky period with some 20 different governments over 20 years, many of which came to power via a military coup. One brief stint even included a pan-Arab merger with Gamal Nasser’s Egypt as the United Arab Republic.

Emerging as a strongman from Syria’s dominant, yet minority Alawite Shia sect, Defense Minister Hafez Al-Assad took power in a 1970 coup. Ruling with an iron fist, Al-Assad enforced the emergency law with his secret police and once wiped out a Sunni Muslim revolt in the town of Hama, killing at least 25,000 people in 1982.

Upon his death in 2000, his son Bashar Al-Assad, just 34-years-old and a British-trained eye doctor, replaced him as president and head of the Ba’ath Party. (A secular political movement, one once shared by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, its philosophy is centered on Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism.)

And just like Iraq, where Sunnis, Shia and ethnic Kurds have seen fierce rivalries – hence Saddam Hussein’s brutality in keeping the minority Sunnis in power -- Syria is even more complex, adding into the mix those groups plus Alawites, Christians, Druze, and ethnic Turkmen, Armenians and more. It’s notable that 74% of Syrians are Sunnis, though they remain ruled by rival Alawites who, together with other Shia, make up just 13% of the population.

In some respects, Syria is a like an Arab version of Yugoslavia.

And while the grip of communism and Soviet domination held Yugoslavia together by force, Syria’s government has done much the same -- though its glue is a mix of nationalism, ruthless repression and rallying diverse groups against a common enemy, namely Israel and the U.S.
This helps explain why Syria has been Iran’s closest ally, and a state sponsor of terrorism – supporting both Hezbollah operating from Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Seeing itself as a former giant, Syria now throws its weight around via terror group proxies. Notorious incidents include the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and 1983 bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Americans.

In the wake of Hariri’s assassination and resulting anti-Syrian uproar in Lebanon that caused Syria to withdraw its troops after a 29 year-occupation, the West has tried to coax Assad into reforms and improved regional relations, particularly with Israel.

Simultaneously behind the scenes however, Washington has for several years quietly backed Syrian opposition groups – notably through broadcasting a satellite channel, Barada TV.

Now that Syria’s opposition leaders are struggling mightily to topple Assad’s regime – and over 200 protesters have been killed, this would be a good time for Mr. Obama to publicly speak up for them, much as he has for democracy advocates in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

And while the White House seems to believe that U.S. vocal support to opposition groups in places like Syria and Iran will only boost the regimes, I would agree that was likely the case during the Bush administration when the president was generally disliked in the international community.

However, Mr. Obama is actually quite popular overseas. His strong support of Syria’s pro-democracy ranks actually could improve their situation.

It’s time the president put his Noble Peace Prize to work by voicing the same enthusiasm for transition to democracy in Syria as he’s done in U.S.-allied countries.

We must also help foster secular, multi-party democracies that respect freedom and personal liberties -- lest Islamists take power like they will undoubtedly attempt in nearby new democracies.

Although Assad is reaching out to the Syrian people with some long overdue reforms, he also says now there is no need for further unrest.

In the weeks to come, if Assad's loyalists don't stop killing his own people, we should do more to help hasten the demise of his regime. After all, it’s hard to imagine a new government being any worse.

J.D.Gordon is a communications consultant to several Washington, D.C.-area think tanks and a retired Navy commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09 as the Pentagon's spokesman for the Western Hemisphere. For more information on J.D. Gordon visit www.gordoncohenstrategies.com .

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.

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