It’s hard to know where to look first in the Middle East, as the region’s attempt at a transition to democracy continues to be a violent and uncertain affair.

The largest share of the headlines has been given to Yemen, where a full-blown civil war seems to be imminent if not already under way. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has repeatedly reneged on promises to agree to a transition of power, but with tribal opposition mounting it appears that his days are numbered.

Syria, however, is rivalling Yemen for media attention. There, despite mixed signals, the regime still seems set on quelling protests by force: government bombardment of the central town of Rastan is blamed for the deaths of at least 50 people this week.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Libya remains at a stalemate, although opposition forces say they are confident of overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi; peace moves from South African president Jacob Zuma have so far come to nothing. And in Bahrain, an official end to martial law seems to have done nothing to halt the regime’s persecution of opposition activists.

Two things are worth keeping in mind in all this: first that the revolutions across the Middle East are intimately related — no country’s problems can be addressed in isolation from the rest of the region — and second that Western (and especially American) policy interests work strongly against recognising that interconnectedness.

Hence, Western intervention in Libya made sense not just because the opposition there had a territorial base that could be defended, but also because Gaddafi was an old foe who had no enduring value for the West (even though a degree of warmth had crept into the relationship in recent times). And while Gaddafi is still clinging to power of a sort, the intervention has certainly prevented him from consolidating his position and is likely to lead to his eventual removal.

But to extend similar protection to the opposition in Syria would be a very different matter, in part because Western policy has been tied up for a long time with president Bashar al-Assad and his father before him. The United States is neither close enough to Syria to exert the sort of friendly pressure it is attempting in Bahrain (with very little to show for it so far), nor sufficiently detached to feel comfortable with the open hostility it has shown to Gaddafi.

Secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been showing the resultant confusion for some weeks now. Yesterday she said the US needed to make a “clear-eyed, calculated assessment of what influence we have”, but it’s even more important to assess just what that influence is supposed to achieve: so far, although they are coming closer to doing so, neither she nor Barack Obama has explicitly called for Assad’s departure or offered clear support to the forces that are trying to achieve it.

And of course there are very real differences between the different countries. The odd thing about Syria — in complete contrast to Libya — is that Assad continues, even at this late stage, to sound at times like a reformer. This week’s violence has been coupled with a large-scale amnesty for dissidents, offers of talks to the opposition and a promised “full inquiry” into the death of 13-year-old opposition martyr Hamza al-Khatib.

It’s not enough to appease his opponents, but it’s a good deal more than a committed autocrat — a Ceaucescu or a Gaddafi — would be likely to do. That may mean that Assad lacks confidence in his own repression and is somehow searching for a deal, or it could mean that the regime does not speak with one voice and Assad himself is not on the same track as his security forces.

But whatever is going on behind the scenes, the situation on the streets is approaching the point where the West will face enormous pressure to break decisively with the Syrian government and commit to some sort of humanitarian intervention. The days when the international community would look the other way while tens of thousands were massacred are gone — and Assad probably knows it.

Peter Fray

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