“Syrians came up to the abyss and looked over the edge and decided not to take the next step,” says a top US expert on Syria, “And that next step would have been very bloody.

“Syrians have a constant reminder of what happened in Iraq, because there are 1 million Iraqi refugees in the country”, the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis told Crikey this morning. “They are very aware of the risk of it happening to them.”

Syria is like Iraq, says Landis, because the regime’s control is so tight and because the ruling Alawi elite has so much to lose. Consequently, power is only likely to change hands if there’s a bloodbath.

However, the past 24 hours in Syria have been relatively quiet, Landis believes, and the democracy protesters have lost momentum.

Only one person was killed in protests yesterday — in the Mediterranean town of Latakia — and anti-Assad protests in Damascus were small and short-lived, says Landis. By contrast, the biggest and noisiest demonstrations in the capital (and some other cities) were in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think there’s been a bit of exaggeration about the success of the opposition protests so far,” says Landis, while accepting that protests in the southern town of Daraa have been a real challenge to the regime.

Dr Matthew Gray, at the ANU’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, agrees the protesters may be losing momentum, but he’s not convinced Assad is safe. “I wonder if I’m biased because I love Syria and I don’t want to see it go pear-shaped, but I think there’s more and more risk of it getting out of control,” said Gray.

“There are some very deep grievances: the government comes from a minority sect [the Alawis are Shi’ite in a largely Sunni country] and there’s a lot of corruption. Also, Bashar Assad is nothing like as powerful or ruthless as his father. So it still looks to me a lot like Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt.”

However, there’s no way the US is going to get militarily involved whatever happens. And thank God for that.

Over the weekend, the Senate’s Home Security chairman, Joe Lieberman, told Fox News that the US should enforce a Libyan-style no-fly zone if President Assad started turning the guns on his own people — arguably he already has done that. Meanwhile, George Dubya’s former National Security Council head, Steven Hadley, was calling for the US to “send a message to Iran” by toppling Assad.

“No”, was the answer from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on CBS’s Face the Nation. And why not? Because President Assad is “a reformer”, she said.