VOA Correspondent Scott Stearns has one of the most coveted positions in Washington – covering the State Department and the complex yet intriguing realm of international diplomacy. Scott shares his observations about the Arab Spring and broader Middle East issues in his DIPLOMATIC NOTES blog. Click here for his February 2012 posts.
The Obama administration sees a Libyan model for opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he moves to consolidate gains from a string of military successes that have restored government control of areas previously held by insurgents.
Long-concerned by the disconnect between military and civilian components of the year-long uprising, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Syrian National Congress and the Free Syrian Army should look to the coalition that brought down Moammar Gadhafi.
“What we saw coming out of Libya with the unity and the vision that the Transitional National Council presented to the world with the close linkage between the civilian representatives and the fighters for freedom, they presented a unified presence that created an address as to where to go to help them, a lot of confidence in their capacities on the ground, their commitment to the kind of inclusive democracy that Libya is now building,” Clinton says.
“We are working closely with the Syrian opposition to try to assist them to be able to present that kind of unified front and resolve that I know they feel on their own is essential in this struggle against the brutal Assad regime,” she says.
The Libyan analogy is thought to be among the reasons Russia and China are blocking U.N. Security Council action against Damascus – saying support for the Arab League plan to have President Assad step down could be a precursor to Libya-style military intervention.
Russia is accusing Libya’s interim leaders of training Syrian dissidents, with U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin telling the Security Council that Tripoli’s involvement is completely unacceptable and is undermining stability in the Middle East.
We think that al-Qaida is in Syria,” Churkin says. “And now there is the question – is the export of revolution being turned into export of terrorism?”
Following talks with Secretary Clinton, Libyan interim prime minister Abdurrahim El-Keib denied any involvement in training Syrian dissidents “unless this is something that is done without government permission, which I doubt.”
But he made clear his country’s support for Assad opponents as Tripoli’s new leaders were among the first to recognize the Syrian National Council.
“We did it because we felt that the Syrian cause is a good cause,” El-Keib says. “Its people are raising their voice, asking for freedom.”
U.S. officials say they see no evidence of Syrian rebels being trained in Libya, where support for the uprising remains high.
“There have been some fairly large protests by Libyan civilians in support of the Syrian revolution because of the perception of similarity in that both peoples are suffering,” says one U.S. official. “There is a feeling on the part of the Libyan people that they would like to support the Syrian people in whatever way they can.”
As for Assad opponents better organizing themselves along the lines of Libya’s Transitional National Council, Cato Institute foreign policy analyst Malou Innocent says the dynamics in Syria are much different.
“When you look at the Assad regime in general, it seems to have a little more life in it, more so than the Gadhafi regime,” Innocent says. “Gadhafi, arguably, was on his last legs. He was sort of the low-hanging fruit in terms of intervention. Whereas Assad has broadened out his level of support. He does have support with the Maliki regime in Iraq. He has support with Iran. He has support from the Chinese government, from the Russian government.”
While publicly maintaining that President Assad’s days are still numbered, U.S. officials privately admit that number now appears considerably higher following the fall of Homs and the army’s advance on Idlib.
Asked about the Guardian’s release of private Assad e-mails, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says they tell an amazing tale.
Far from being detached from what his military is doing, Assad seems to take pride in the viciousness of his own security forces,” Nuland says. “And he seems to make fun of the idea of actually sitting down and talking with his people. So it really illustrates the character of this guy who – and why he has lost legitimacy not only in the eyes of his people, but in the eyes of the international community.”
Scott Stearns is VOA's State Department correspondent. He has worked as the Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.