Friday, June 3, 2011

Syrian Violence Tests U.S.

Security forces loyal to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad pressed a sustained assault against protesters Thursday in one of the bloodiest episodes in the so-called Arab Spring, exposing the quandary that President Barack Obama faces in trying to deal with a man he once thought he could convert into an ally.

The killing of at least 70 people around the central town of Homs in the past five days, according to activists, brought to an estimated 1,100 the total toll in Mr. Assad's months-long crackdown and sparked tougher condemnation from the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged other Arab states, Russia and China to join in protesting the violence.
Four Decades of Assad Reign

1971 Hafez al-Assad assumes Syria's presidency, leading to four decades of Baath Party rule.

1983 Assad orders assault on Muslim Brotherhood stronghold in Hama, killing up to 40,000 people.

Associated Press

A destroyed Iraqi tank during the Gulf War in 1991.

1991 Assad contributes Syrian troops to U.S.-led coalition that expelled Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait.

2000 Bashar al-Assad succeeds father as Syrian leader, promises to initiate political reforms.

2004 George W. Bush imposes wide-ranging sanctions on Assad regime, charging support for militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian territories.

2005 Assad orders withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon following murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

2007 Israeli jets destroy alleged nuclear reactor in eastern Syria.

2009 Obama White Houses eases some sanctions on Syrian regime in bid for rapprochement.

2011 President Obama sanctions Assad and key lieutenants following political crackdown.

But the Obama administration still wasn't quite ready to give up on Mr. Assad.

"The legitimacy that is necessary for anyone to expect change to occur under this current government is, if not gone, nearly run out," Mrs. Clinton told reporters. "If he's not going to lead the reform, he needs to get out of the way."

Mrs. Clinton's ambiguity highlights the frustrating U.S. courtship of Bashar al-Assad. For more than two years, Mr. Obama's foreign-policy team has tried to woo Mr. Assad away from America's regional nemesis, Iran, and persuade him to resume peace talks with America's regional friend, Israel. For more than two years, Mr. Assad has frustrated the U.S. with the promise of reform and the practice of repression.

At one point Sen. John Kerry, the president's informal envoy to Mr. Assad, even secretly negotiated an agreement with the Syrians to restart peace talks with Israel, according to people briefed on the matter. Having harbored such lofty aspirations, the Obama administration is finding it hard to cut loose the 45-year-old, London-trained ophthalmologist.

As democratic protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Obama ushered Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out the door and sent U.S. jets to try to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. But so far nobody in the Obama administration has publicly urged Mr. Assad to surrender power.

Mr. Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009 determined to engage some of Washington's most intractable foes, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. But many of Mr. Obama's foreign-affairs advisers saw Mr. Assad as the most promising target.

The Syrian president had suggested to U.S. officials a willingness to break his military alliance with Tehran, forge peace with Israel and diminish Syrian support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

The White House put in place a foreign-policy team with vast experience dealing with Mr. Assad and his late father, President Hafez al-Assad. And in Mr. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the White House found a key ally in pursuing Mr. Assad: In repeated trips to Damascus, the Massachusetts Democrat had established something approaching a friendship with Mr. Assad.

Mr. Obama quickly ran into opposition from lawmakers who argued that Mr. Assad was only feigning interest in U.S. outreach. Now they worry that the administration has waited too long to seek his ouster.

"One of the game-changers for the Middle East is the fall of Assad," says Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). "It's just baffling to me how it's not in the U.S.'s interest to seek the removal of Bashar Assad."

Senior U.S. officials say Washington's tempered response to the Syrian crackdown has been driven by fears that Mr. Assad's overthrow could unleash even wider sectarian violence. American allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel have expressed similar fears. There's also a belief among some in the U.S. government that Mr. Assad will weather the current storm no matter what the U.S. does.

"He probably has the wherewithal to be sitting in the palace for quite some time," said a senior administration official.

U.S. relations with Syria were at a low when Mr. Obama took office pledging to re-engage Damascus. The George W. Bush administration had accused,read:

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