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Unrest in Syria, Jordan Poses New Test for U.S. Policy

WASHINGTON — Even as the Obama administration defends the NATO-led air war in Libya, the latest violent clashes in Syria and Jordan are raising new alarm among senior officials who view those countries, in the heartland of the Arab world, as far more vital to American 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 American rivalry with Iran for influence in the region and pose challenges to the United States’ greatest ally in the region, Israel.

This footage purportedly show protests in the southwestern town of Daraa on 18th March 2011.
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This footage purportedly show protests in the southwestern town of Daraa on 18th March 2011.

In interviews, administration officials said the uprising appeared to be widespread, involving different religious groups in southern and coastal regions of Syria, including Sunni Muslims usually loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The new American ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, has been quietly reaching out to Mr. Assad to urge him to stop firing on his people.

As American officials confront the upheaval in Syria, a country with which the United States has icy relations, they say they are pulled between fears that its problems could destabilize neighbors like Lebanon and Israel, and the hope that it could 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 fruitless effort that has left President Obama open to criticism on Capitol Hill that he is bolstering one of the most repressive regimes 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 Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

While Israel has largely managed to avoid being drawn into the region’s turmoil, last week’s bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed one person and wounded 30, and a rain of 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 American ally.

Syria, however, is the more urgent crisis — one that could pose a thorny dilemma for the administration if Mr. 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?

Though no one is yet talking about a no-fly zone over Syria, Obama administration officials acknowledge the parallels to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Some analysts predicted the administration will be cautious in pressing Mr. Assad, not because of any allegiance to him but out of a fear of what could follow him — a Sunni-led government potentially more radical and Islamist than his Alawite minority government.

Still, after the violence, administration officials said Mr. Assad’s future was unclear. “Whatever credibility the government had, they shot it today — literally,” a senior official said about Syria, speaking on the condition that he not be named.

Not a peace partner?

In the process, he said, Mr. Assad had also probably disqualified himself as a peace partner for Israel. Such a prospect had seemed a long shot in any event — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown no inclination to talk to Mr. Assad — but the administration kept working at it, sending its special envoy, George J. Mitchell, on several visits to Damascus.

Mr. 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 neighbor, if only to deflect attention from the festering problems at home.

“You can’t have a comprehensive peace without Syria,” the administration official said. “It’s definitely in our interest to pursue an agreement, but you can’t do it with a government that has no credibility with its population.”

Indeed, the crackdown calls into question the entire American engagement with Syria. Last June, the State Department organized a delegation from Microsoft, Dell and Cisco Systems to visit Mr. Assad with the message that he could attract more investment if he stopped censoring Facebook and Twitter. While the administration renewed economic sanctions against Syria, it approved export licenses for some civilian aircraft parts.

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 Mr. Obama named Mr. 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 by restoring an ambassador.

But officials also concede that Mr. 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 program; and failing to deliver on promises of reform.

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 Mr. 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.”

The United States does not have the leverage with Syria it had with Egypt. But Mr. Tabler said the administration could stiffen sanctions to press Mr. Assad to make reforms.

Other analysts, however, 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 Mr. 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 U.S.,” 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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