If you want to know what’s really worrying Washington as officials anxiously survey the anger sweeping through the Arab world, it’s not Libya you should be focusing on.
And if you need a reason, as so often in the Middle East, all you have to do is look at a map.
To the west, Lebanon, a country that Syria has always regarded as part of its own back yard and where its support for the Shia Hizbollah movement is a vital component in Lebanon’s political jigsaw.
To the south, Israel, a country with which Syria is still officially at war, and which has annexed a sizeable chunk of Syrian territory, the strategically sensitive Golan Heights. (Syria is also a key supporter of the Palestinian Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip and which Israel regards as among its most implacable enemies.)
To the east, Iraq, still far from stable after the 2003 US-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein, and where Syria’s long-term ally, Iran, is a major political player.
In other words, Syria is a major influence in the most sensitive region of the always sensitive Middle East. And President Bashar al-Assad, who with his late father Hafez al-Assad before him, has ruled the country for more than 40 years, is no friend of Washington.
Last night, the US State Department said there is evidence that Iran is helping Syrian authorities crack down on the wave of protests that have swept through the country for the past month. It is, said officials, a troubling example of Iranian meddling in the region.
Nonsense, said Syria, and totally untrue. What’s more, some analysts have suggested that there are signs of Western-backed groups supplying arms to anti-Assad protesters. Some reports claim that it’s these armed protesters who were responsible for shooting and killing Syrian security forces last weekend.
With very little independent reporting from inside Syria (no visas are being issued to foreign journalists), rumours are everywhere and facts are thin on the ground. Today, tens of thousands of protesters were out again on the streets of several towns and cities – human rights groups say more than 200 have been killed over the past four weeks, nearly 40 of them last Friday alone. (I write this before the full scale of today’s protests is known.)
When President Assad delivered a long-awaited speech on television two weeks ago, he was seen by critics, both in Syria and outside, to have missed an opportunity to announce meaningful reforms that might have gone some way to satisfying at least some of the protesters.
His government is considered to be one of the most repressive and brutal in the Arab world – no one in Syria is unaware that back in 1982, when his father was in charge, tens of thousands of people were killed in the city of Hama when an Islamist-inspired uprising was mercilessly crushed.
It’s impossible to predict how the crisis in Syria will end – it certainly looks like the most serious challenge to the rule of the Assads since 1982. And now, with allegations from both sides of external meddling, there is a growing risk that Syria could become a proxy battleground for regional super-powers hoping to maximise their influence.
If Bashar al-Assad manages to survive, it’ll be seen as good news for Iran. If he is toppled (depending, of course, on what – or who – follows him), it could be good news for anti-Assad forces backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, which itself has been accused of meddling in Syria, as well as intervening on the side of repression in its neighbour, Bahrain.
But it’s as well to remember that even if there are regional forces involved, there is also genuine popular anger at a government which is seen to have failed to deliver on its promises of more freedom and less corruption.