Across the Middle East today the "Arab Spring" appears to be in full bloom. Preoccupied with the disintegration of the formerly pro-American government in Yemen, the threat to its naval base in Bahrain, growing difficulties in Iraq, disorder in Egypt and Jordan, and pressure from Great Britain and France to step up military operations in Libya, the Obama Administration has placed Syria on the backburner. It is questionable at this point whether even a major bloodbath by the Assad government would spur any significant western involvement. Only in Syria, where a growing number of citizens are rising up against the Assad regime, has the United States and the rest of the western world failed to develop or convey any type of policy whatsoever.
Considering the strategic importance of Syria to western interests in the region, this should come as somewhat of a surprise. Yet aside from a few statements from the State Department and various foreign ministries, little else is being said or done. Once again we find US policy lacking in its response to an uprising in the Middle East. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.
The "CNN effect" theory is a primary reason for the lack of attention being given to the activities in Syria. In essence, the theory contends that extensive media coverage of a given conflict -- or lack thereof -- can result in radical changes in a state's foreign policy, including military interventions and withdrawals. We recently witnessed this effect in Egypt, as images of young Egyptians in Tahrir Square led citizens and governments the world over to express their support for those rebelling. We saw the CNN effect once again in Libya, where media coverage ultimately led to NATO intervention in that country.
Yet as one of the most authoritarian states in the world, Syria has managed to keep the press at bay, despite the growing conflict and rising casualties. Al Jazeera, the most influential media channel in the Arab world, is based and supported by Qatar -- an ally of the Assad regime. Consequently, al Jazeera's coverage of Syrian activities has been scant in comparison to other revolts in the region.
The realities on the ground are another reason for the lack of attention being paid to Syria. Just as the other conflicts across the Arab world are taking up the media's airtime, so too are they competing for the attention of western governments. The Iranians are making a major effort to protect their interests by supporting their friends. What this means is that in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are helping the Shiite populations rise up against their rulers. What this means in the case of Syria, is that Iran is working with the Allawite rulers to quell any rebellions being led by the Sunni majority in the country. Wary of losing a critical friend in the Arab world, Iran is using its deep political and military ties to quietly support the Assad regime in Syria.
Yet even without these other very real concerns in the region, the lack of western involvement in Syrian affairs -- be it diplomatic or military -- is also due to the fact that the alternatives to an Assad regime are not exactly inspiring. Syrian opposition at the moment is relatively disorganized, but the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is clearly the most powerful opposition player, and it has been growing in strength in recent years. The country's authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, is propped up by his fellow Allawites, who are a minority in that Sunni-dominated land. In order to maintain control, the Allawites control every major military and political post in the country. This religious Allawite minority that is an offshoot of Shiism knows that if Assad falls, their days of privilege are numbered. As a result, they are more unified and willing to shed blood than was the Egyptian military.
As internal strife continues to spread across Syria, the regime may seek further assistance from Iran. It may also seek greater conflict with Israel as a way to distract attention from domestic concerns. The United States is once again poised to play catch up to events in the Middle East, and Syria is hardly a place where it can afford to do so. Whatever policy it chooses, it needs to develop one soon. The need to be proactive and outspoken about the troubles in Syria can spell the difference between acting ahead of the curve, and once again being caught off-guard. While the alternative to an Assad regime is unknown, one thing is for certain: its downfall would be a major defeat for Iran, and an important victory for the west. The United States must act fast to ensure it molds its own real policy, before it ends up having to respond to others yet again.