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Unrest In Syria Raises Alarm In Washington

It's no surprise that the revolutionary march across the Arab world would find its way to Syria. For the past few weeks, pockets of protest have sprung up in several areas of the country.

Scores of Syrians have been killed or arrested recently in the greatest challenge to President Bashar Assad's 11-year rule. The government there has been able to keep a lid on the situation so far, but it is starting to set off alarm bells in Washington.

Syria may have a dismal economy and few natural resources, but it is right in the center of the Middle East and is critical to U.S. interests. Ted Kattouf, a former American ambassador to the country, says for that reason, Syria has always been able to punch above its weight.

If the situation deteriorated in Syria as Assad himself is threatening ... then frankly, Syria's role in the future will become more and more of a destabilizing factor.

"The way they've done that is by ensuring that they have their hands on the levers of issues with which the United States is involved and about which it cares a great deal," he says.

Kattouf says that includes supporting Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas. He says Syria has also been able to "successfully to manipulate events in Lebanon for decades."

"And then, of course, there's the whole issue of Israel," he adds.

The Obama administration had been trying to bring Syria into the fold of the Arab-Israeli peace process, with little success. And, at the same time, it has been trying to peel Syria away from one of its main allies, Iran.

A Spillover Effect

If Assad is seriously weakened or overthrown because of the current uprising, it will not only affect U.S. foreign policy. It is likely to have a spillover effect and upset the dynamic of the region, says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human-rights activist exiled in the U.S. and the founder of the Tharwa Foundation, an organization that promotes democracy in Syria.

"If the situation deteriorated in Syria as Assad himself is threatening ... then frankly, Syria's role in the future will become more and more of a destabilizing factor," Abdulhamid says.

Ambassador Kattouf says if the Assad regime topples, it could unravel the intricate network of Syrian relations with its allies and foes. Kattouf says this could represent both an opportunity and danger for the United States and others.

"Iran and Hezbollah would both be tremendously dismayed if they thought that the leadership of Bashar al-Assad was about to be toppled in Syria," he says. "It would be a strategic setback for both of them."

U.S. In A Bind

Kattouf says at the same time, if the Syrian government fell, it would usher in the unknown. There is a genuine concern instability in Syria could lead to civil war and inflame sectarian tensions there and elsewhere in the region.

Syria has a majority Sunni population, while members of Assad's government come primarily from the much smaller community of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Analysts say the Obama administration is in a bind about whom to back — protesters demanding freedom and reform, or the Assad regime to help keep a lid on a potentially explosive situation.

There are some, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who saw Assad as a reformer.

Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says the United States has to approach the situation in Syria with kid gloves.

"It's going to be very important to see which way [Assad] wants to move forward. He's laid down the gauntlet on revolution but he's said we want to reform," Landis says. "America has to sit down with its allies, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Europeans, and figure out a way forward. And talk to Bashar al-Assad."

'He's Ruled By Indecision'

But Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, says the United States doesn't have a lot of leverage with Syria.

Tabler, who spent a decade in Syria, says Assad is now cornered. And while the Syrian president needs to make some hard decisions about what he wants to do, that's just not in his nature.

"It's particularly hard for him because until now he's ruled by indecision, by not making clear decisions, by not clearly reforming," Tabler says. "And very much he is being pressed to do so at the moment — to declare himself — and this is not the way he rules."

Still, Tabler doesn't believe Assad's overthrow is imminent, primarily because Syria's military is still on his side.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.