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Escalating protests in Syria put Obama administration in a bind

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Escalating anti-government demonstrations in Syria have put the Obama administration in a quandary as it tries to protect a range of wider U.S. interests while supporting what it has called the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.

Since the demonstrations began five weeks ago, heading toward what organizers say will be a decisive showdown Friday with the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the administration has denounced official crackdowns but resisted concrete steps to pressure Damascus.

U.S. officials say they have little leverage over Syria, which is barred from American aid and most bilateral trade under its designation by the State Department as a terrorist-sponsoring nation and under other laws.

“We already have sanctions,” a senior administration official said. “We could pursue whether there are additional ways to tighten pressure, but I don’t want to suggest there is anything imminent.”

Some of the administration’s hesi­ta­tion is doubtless due to a palpable sense of weariness among policymakers buffeted by months of political crises across the Middle East. But there are more tangible reasons where Syria is concerned, including a reluctance to add further uncertainty to the tenuous Israeli-Palestinian peace process; an unwillingness, shared by Turkey and others allies in the neighborhood, to readily trade a known quantity in Assad for an unknown future; and a latent belief among some that the Syrian leader can be persuaded to adopt real reforms.

The administration has reached out to Assad over the past two years and allowed the shipment of some dual-use technology, most significantly lifting restrictions on U.S.-manufactured spare parts for the Syrian airline. As part of a diplomatic thaw, the administration last year sent the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005, when high-level diplomatic representation was withdrawn after Syria was accused in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

More than 200 people have been killed in cycles of violence and concessions that began in Syria last month. Last week, even as Assad responded to a key demand of protesters by lifting decades-old emergency laws giving police unlimited powers of surveillance and detention, security forces fired into a crowd of demonstrators in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, killing at least four people.

Unlike its firm rejection of government repression in Arab countries such as Egypt and Bahrain, and far from its direct intervention in Libya, the Obama administration has resisted unequivocally blaming Western-educated Assad, who took power 10 years ago after his father’s three-decade rule ended. The Assads, members of the minority Alawite sect, have used the military to hold sway over Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims.

“There is a different leader in Syria now,” and many believe Assad is a “reformer,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said late last month in a comment on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that drew widespread political criticism.

On Wednesday, Clinton condemned “the ongoing violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government” and “any use of violence by protesters.”

Depending on what happens during Friday’s demonstrations, some members of Congress may push for stronger sanctions against Syria when they return to Washington next week from their spring recess. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said earlier this month that the administration had “ignored” serious Syrian threats to U.S. security.

“Rather than returning our ambassador to Damascus and upgrading the U.S. relationship with this pariah state, as the current administration has done, the U.S. must impose tough sanctions against the Syrian regime,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said it was “probably fair to say that the U.S. on its own can’t do that much more on the sanctions front.” But, he said, “it could have significant impact working with the European Union,” Syria’s largest trading partner and a significant importer of its oil.

Some analysts accused President Obama of failing to see how Assad’s departure would strengthen U.S. policy in the region, including in dealing with Iran. Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally and has long been a transhipment point for Iranian weapons bound for Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement in Lebanon that Assad views as leverage with Israel. Iran also uses Syrian ports as its outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.

Assad’s ouster could deprive Iran of those benefits, amounting to “a great gain for the United States and a great loss for Iran,” said Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council’s Middle East director during the George W. Bush administration.

Beyond strategic considerations, Abrams said, Assad’s “vicious and despicable” human rights record should be enough to prompt Obama to take a much harder line.

“This regime has seen us as an enemy, and I just don’t understand the notion that Assad is a reformer and that this regime can be reformed,” Abrams said. “It cannot be.

“What bothers me most is that this administration believes we’d be better off with the regime in place and is failing to see the huge benefit we would achieve should it fall,” Abrams said.

Others were more sympathetic to the administration’s dilemma. Syria’s weak national institutions and long-standing, if dormant, Islamic undercurrent give the administration few good alternatives to Assad’s continued rule, said Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who has lived in Syria.

Landis said that the region’s four key players — Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia — have an interest in seeing Assad survive.

“Everybody’s knee-jerk position is going to be to hope that Assad can regain control,” Landis said, because “the chances that [Syria’s] national institutions will collapse, like Iraq, are great. And then you’ll have endless factionalism.”

A new democratic government in Syria would probably urge Obama to push Israel to return the Golan Heights, taken in the 1967 Middle East war, to bring it legitimacy. Israel has long preferred to set the timing and terms of such talks.

Turkey fears that Syria’s Kurds may seek to break away if Assad is toppled, reanimating Turkey’s Kurdish separatist movement. Lebanon’s large Christian minority worries about the rise of a conservative Islamist government on its eastern border.

Although Saudi Arabia has had problems with Assad, and with Syria’s alliance with Saudi archenemy Iran, the kingdom is concerned that Assad’s fall could stir its own quiet, democratic movement to life.

“So what does America do? Antagonize all of its allies in the region to push this transition at a time that its chief interest is getting out of Iraq?” Landis said. “We’re on this democracy roll in the region, and many believe it’s a one-stop shop. But, of course, it’s not, and it’s very difficult to explain that change in Syria is different.”

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