Syrians fear Libyan assault will cost US support

Many believe Assad’s foes will pay the price for the attacks on US diplomatic posts.

September 20, 2012 08:05
3 minute read.
Syrian independence flag painted on fingers

Syrian independence flag painted on fingers 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)


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Sleiman Hweiri grimaced, his gaze fixated on the television screen. Al-Jazeera was broadcasting footage of protesters storming the American embassy in Tunis and replacing the US flag with the black banner of Islam. “After this, the Americans won’t be in any mood to help us,” he says with an air of resignation.

If there is one Arab community that unanimously condemned the protests against American diplomatic installations in the Middle East, it is the Syrians.  For months they have begged Washington and its allies to intervene in their eighteen month revolution. They argued a former adversary would offer eternal gratitude by breaking relations with American foes Iran and its Lebanese client Hezbollah. But following the death of American Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, a country that benefited from Washington’s military intervention, many Syrians believe the Western world will abandon them.

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“This attack is the worst thing that could happen to us,” Ahmad Ali says sifting through boxes of baby milk powder. The humanitarian aid worker fled his home in the city of Idlib last March as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces incessantly shelled the city.  Today, he works to make sure those that stayed behind have the basic supplies they need. “Western diplomats tell us to be patient,” he tells The Media Line. “They say they are working on coordinating a military response. But why will they want to help us if we burn them like in Libya?”

Ever since the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last October, the Obama administration has highlighted its intervention in Libya as one of its chief diplomatic successes.  But following Stevens’ death in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi by an Islamist mob, many are questioning what Washington achieved there. And with questions buzzing about the number of extremists fighting in Syria, few in Washington have the appetite for intervention in a country where the players on the front lines are such an unknown.

Hweiri is cognizant of the uphill battle the Syrian opposition faces. He abandoned his medical practice in New Zealand to come help the rebels in February.  For months he has been meeting with Syrian political and military leaders, trying to end the internecine bickering that has fragmented Assad’s opponents. At the same time, he has been shuttling to Western capitals to meet with government officials there to plead for military intervention. “It’s all gone to waste. Those blokes in Libya may have ruined our revolution,” he complains motioning at the television featuring an Al-Jazeera clip showing the charred remains of the American consulate in Benghazi.

Hweiri and many like him fear Washington will turn their back on the rebels.  And they have good cause to do so. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.), the leading candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, recently said the attack in Libya “will certainly give pause, or should give pause, to people who are pressing for a kind of involvement (in Syria) that you have got to back up to be successful.”  Kerry’s comments were a far cry from the support he offered the rebels last February when he said, “if the (Syrian) government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves.”  Many Washington insiders at the time interpreted his comments to mean he backed arming the rebels.

Members of the Syrian National Congress, Syria’s parliament-in-exile, reacted with resignation to Kerry’s most recent comments. “Hopefully, this will blow over,” one said as he moved from one cell-phone call to another speaking to activists from countries ranging from France to Brazil. “The American people are angry, and rightfully so. But we still have friends in Washington and the elections may turn out to help, rather than hinder us.”

Rifat Saad agrees. The fundraising coordinator believes US President Barack Obama has coddled Arab dictators who have killed their own people. He speaks highly of President George W. Bush and his campaign to bring democracy to the region and supposes Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will do the same. “Obama has does nothing for us,” Saad told The Media Line. “But Romney has said he will support us with arms,” continues as his eyes light up.

With protests spreading throughout the Arab world, Saad’s optimism might be misplaced today. But in a region where opinions change quicker than weather forecasts, his hopes just might come true after November’s elections.

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