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Syrian rebels don’t want U.S. aid, at least for now

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Syrian rebels who have shaken the regime in Damascus do not want U.S. assistance, at least for now, a Syrian dissident in close touch with the network of protesters told The Washington Times on Sunday.

Ammar Abdulhamid, who has emerged as an unofficial spokesman in the West for the activists organizing the Syrian protests, said, however, that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was wrong to refer to Syrian President Bashar Assad as a reformer on CBS News on Sunday.

"It was ridiculous to call Bashar Assad a reformer. She should not have done that," he said.

Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the United States for now would not come to the aid of Syrians demonstrating against the rule of Mr. Assad.

When asked about Mr. Assad's now-deceased father's decision to wipe out Sunni protesters in the city of Hama in 1982, Mrs. Clinton said the current Syrian president was different from his father.

"Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," Mrs. Clinton said of Mr. Assad.

"What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities and then police actions, which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."

Mrs. Clinton also indicated that the Libyan intervention was backed by several international bodies, while no such international support exists for U.S.-led action in Syria.

"If there were a coalition of the international community, if there were the passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal," Mrs. Clinton said in response to a question, asking whether the United States would intervene in Syria.

"But that is not going to happen, because I don't think that it's yet clear what will occur, what will unfold."

Mr. Abdulhamid said Mrs. Clinton's words were "calibrated to different audiences."

"I don't think many Syrians wanted to see the Americans taking too strong a line on these developments, because the regime is already saying it's an American conspiracy," he added.

"That is important. On the other hand, she did not rule out that there could be assistance in the future if there were more massacres."

Protests spread over the weekend to the seaside town of Latakia, and on Sunday local press reported that at least 12 people had been killed by pro-government militias. At least 60 demonstrators have been killed in the protests this month.

Buthaina Shaaban, a spokeswoman for the government, said last week that the regime will lift the emergency law that has been in place since 1963, but it was unclear what that would mean. That law gives the government nearly unlimited authority to detain, imprison and interrogate Syrian citizens.

Mr. Abdulhamid said, however, that this step would likely not quiet the protests.

"It's too little, too late," he said. "It will frankly not satisfy anybody."

The Arab cable news network Al Arabiya reported Sunday that the government in Damascus will resign, a move similar to Hosni Mubarak's last-ditch effort in February to save his regime.

Mr. Abdulhamid said the protests in Syria are organized by a group of social-media-savvy activists inspired and in contact with other Web activists who brought down the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes.

"It's a diffuse leadership at this stage," he said. "The people who are leading this uprising are youth activists in their teens and 20s. They have taken to Facebook and are networking with each other and others in the Arab world, asking for advice from others who have had success in other places."

Mr. Abdulhamid said he initially thought the best time to call for protests would be in the summer, but the date was changed to March 15.

"I was hoping to push this to the summer, but the young people wanted to move now, and we agreed on March 15," he said. "Lo and behold, this happened, and it is happening."

One tactic the demonstrators are using is Web-based video. A particularly popular video that was put online late last week claims to show Mr. Assad's brother, Maher Assad, walking over the corpses of political prisoners who were killed in the 2008 crackdown in the Sednaya prison in Daraa.

"This has made its way throughout the Internet," Mr. Abdulhamid said. "One of the soldiers who was there took the video. It has been blocked because it is so graphic, so we changed the accounts, and we put it on Facebook, too."

Mr. Abdulhamid said Mrs. Clinton was correct for now to tone down the uprisings in Syria, but not all observers agreed.

A senior Republican Senate aide said, "This is an opportunity to get rid of an enemy of America. And this administration is playing a repeat of their inaction on Iran in 2009."

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," cautioned against comparing the uprising in Syria to the anti-government actions in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

"Every one of these countries is different," Mr. McCain said. "Let's give moral support to these [protesters] in Syria, but let's not take our eye off Egypt. Egypt is the key."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, said the events transpiring in Libya should send a strong message to the Syrian dictator.

"If he turns his weapons on his own people, he runs the risk," Mr. Lieberman said on "Fox News Sunday."

"There is a precedent now. ... We're not going to allow Assad to slaughter his own people."

c David Eldridge contributed to this report.

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