WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday appeared to rule out the United States intervening militarily in Syria in the same way it has in Libya, saying in a TV interview that each Arab uprising was unique.
Speaking in an interview taped on Saturday, Clinton said she deplored the violence in Syria but the circumstances were different in Libya, where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had used his air force and heavy armor against civilians.
Bordering Israel, Lebanon and Iraq and an ally to Iran, Syria has long had a vexed relationship with the United States, which accuses it of backing Palestinian militants, meddling in Lebanon and allowing anti-U.S. insurgents to cross into Iraq.
The United States, which already has extensive sanctions on Syria, has few levers to influence Damascus and only restored an ambassador there in January after a nearly six-year gap.
Syria, if it chose, could cause trouble for the United States in many ways, increasing its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, providing greater backing to anti-Israel Palestinian groups such as Hamas or possibly moving against Israel itself, the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East.
Asked if one should expect a U.S. involvement in Syria along the lines of the air strikes on Libya by the United States and other nations, Clinton flatly told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program “no.”
“Each of these situations is unique,” she added.
“We deplore the violence in Syria, we call as we have on all of these governments ... to be responding to their people’s needs, not to engage in violence, permit peaceful protests and begin a process of economic and political reform,” she said.
Analysts and a U.S. lawmaker said if the situation in Syria deteriorated, the United States may face calls for military action in a fourth Muslim country beyond Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Clinton said there was not the same level of violence in Syria and the government’s crackdown on protests had not yet garnered global condemnation or calls from the Arab League and others for a no-fly zone as there was with Libya.
“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, than police actions which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see,” she added.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent, suggested the United States and other countries could intervene militarily in Syria if President Bashar al-Assad, who came to power after the 2000 death of his father, Hafez, attacked protesters with greater ferocity.
“There’s a precedent now that the world community has said in Libya, and it’s the right one, ‘we’re not going to stand by and allow this Assad to slaughter his people like his father did years ago,’” Lieberman told the “Fox News Sunday” program.
Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, said he would be reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria because the United States has so much on its plate, including winding down the war in Iraq and fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Asked if he could see the United States moving beyond its condemnation of the violence against protesters and its call for restraint by the Syrian authorities, Walker replied: “No. Not unless the situation gets considerably worse.
“If we start seeing a situation like existed in Hama, where you’ve got a government waging war on its own population and the numbers (of deaths) are significantly larger, it’s going to put the administration in a terrible position,” he said.
If that happened, Walker said the Obama administration would face questions like “why are we fooling around in Libya and not getting involved in Syria?”
The Syrian authorities have a history of crushing dissent. In 1982, Assad’s father sent in troops to put down a rebellion in the city of Hama, killing thousands.
Editing by Eric Beech