Unrest in Syria strikes closer to US interests

Will there be a reprieve? An elderly man sits near a burnt-out building in Latakia, a city 350 km northwest of Damascus.  Syrian security forces had to strive hard to quell two days’ of unrest against president Bashar al-Assad in which 15 persons died. AFP

Even as the Obama administration tries to explain and defend the NATO-led air war in Libya, the latest violent clashes in Jordan and Syria are raising new alarm among US officials who view those countries, in the heartland of the Arab world, as far more vital to western interests.

Deepening chaos in Syria, in particular, could dash any remaining hopes for a Middle East peace agreement, several analysts said. It could also alter the US rivalry with Iran for influence in the region and pose challenges for the United States’ greatest ally in the region, Israel. In interviews, administration officials said they were trying to gauge the seriousness of the latest Syrian uprising, though they have confirmed that the protests have been widespread, involving different ethnic groups in both the southern and coastal regions of Syria. The new US ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, has been quietly reaching out to president Bashar Assad to urge him to stop firing on his people.

As US officials confront the sudden upheaval in Syria, they say they are pulled between fears that the country’s problems could destabilise neighbouring states like Lebanon and Israel, and the hope that it could seriously weaken one of Iran’s key allies. The Syrian unrest continued on Saturday, with government troops reported to have killed more protesters. With 61 people confirmed killed by security forces, the country’s status as an island of stability amid the Middle East storm seemed irretrievably lost.

For two years, the United States has tried to coax Damascus into negotiating a peace deal with Israel and to moving away from Iran – a largely fruitless effort that has left the Obama administration open to criticism on Capitol Hill that it is cozying up to one of the most repressive governments in the Arab world. Officials fear the unrest there and in Jordan could leave Israel further isolated. The Israeli government was already rattled by the overthrow of Egypt’s leader, Hosni Mubarak, worrying that a new government might not be as committed to peace with Israel.

Exploiting uncertainty

While Israel has largely managed to avoid being drawn into the regional turmoil, last week’s bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed one person and wounded 30, and increased rocket attacks from Gaza, have fanned fears that the militant group Hamas is trying to exploit the uncertainty. The unrest in Jordan, which has its own peace treaty with Israel, is also extremely worrying, a senior administration official said. The United States does not believe Jordan is close to a tipping point, this official said. But the clashes, which left one person dead and more than a hundred wounded, pose the gravest challenge yet to King Abdullah II, a close US ally.

Syria, however, is the more urgent crisis – one that could pose a thorny dilemma for the administration if Assad carries out a crackdown like that of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, who ordered a bombardment in 1982 that killed at least 10,000 people in the northern city of Hama. Having intervened in Libya to prevent a wholesale slaughter in Benghazi, some analysts asked, how could the administration not do the same in Syria?

Administration officials acknowledge the parallels to Muammar Gadhafi, though no one is yet talking about a no-fly zone over Syria. “Whatever credibility the government had, they shot it today – literally,” said a senior administration official about Syria, speaking on the condition that he not be named. In the process, this official said, Assad has also probably disqualified himself as a peace partner for Israel. Such a prospect had seemed a long shot in any event – Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has shown no inclination to talk to Assad – but the administration kept working at it. Its special envoy to the Middle East, George J Mitchell, has been a regular visitor to Damascus.

Assad has said that he wants to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel. But with his population up in arms, analysts said, he might actually have an incentive to pick a fight with its neighbour, if only to deflect attention from the festering problems at home. “You can’t have comprehensive peace in the Middle East without Syria,” the administration official said. “It’s definitely in our interest to pursue an agreement, but you can’t do with a government that has no credibility with its population.” The crackdown calls into question the entire US engagement with Syria – a policy that has also been championed by Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Last June, the State Department organised a delegation from Microsoft, Dell and Cisco Systems to visit Assad with the message that he could attract more investment if he stopped censoring social networks like Facebook and Twitter. While the administration renewed economic sanctions against Syria, it approved export licenses for some civilian aircraft parts.

Nuclear programme

The Bush administration, by contrast, largely shunned Damascus, recalling its ambassador in February 2005 after the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese accuse Syria of involvement in the assassination, a charge it denies.

When Obama named Ford as his envoy last year, Republicans in the Senate held up the appointment for months, arguing that the United States should not reward Syria with closer ties. The administration said it would have more influence over Syria by restoring an ambassador. But officials also concede that Assad has been an endless source of frustration – deepening ties with Iran and the Islamic militant group, Hezbollah; undermining the government of Saad Hariri in Lebanon; pursuing a nuclear programme; and failing to deliver on promises of political reform.

In a glimpse of the kinds of questions the administration will face over its Syria policy, some analysts said that the United States was so eager to use Syria to break the deadlock on Middle East peace negotiations that it had failed to push Assad harder on political reforms. “He’s given us nothing, even though we’ve engaged him on the peace process,” said Andrew J Tabler, who lived in Syria for a decade and is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I’m not saying we should give up on peace talks with Israel, but we cannot base our strategy on that.”

Lacking ties to the military, the United States does not have the leverage with Syria it had with Egypt. But Tabler said the administration could stiffen sanctions to press Assad to follow through with promised reforms.

Still, other analysts point to a positive effect of the unrest: it could deprive Iran of a reliable ally in extending its influence over Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. That is not a small thing, they said, given that Iran is likely to benefit from the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, the upheaval in Bahrain, and the resulting chill between the United States and Saudi Arabia. “There’s much more upside than downside for the US,” said Martin S Indyk, the vice president for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “We have an interest in counterbalancing the advantages Iran has gained in the rest of the region. That makes it an unusual confluence of our values and interests.”

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