Monday, March 28, 2011

U.S. Won't Back New Intervention


WASHINGTON—U.S. officials are virtually ruling out an international intervention to stop political violence in Syria, despite a widening crackdown against dissidents there.

Obama administration officials made clear on Sunday that they aren't seeking to mobilize the international community to act against Syria and President Bashar al-Assad's security forces, as it has done in Libya. In part, they said, their position is based on the view among some analysts that President Assad could become a reformer, and in part on the fact that Syria's crackdown on dissent hasn't been nearly as harsh as Libya's has been.The administration's response illustrates the difficult policy line the White House is straddling as it seeks to fashion a consistent approach to the democratic surge bracing the Middle East.

Some U.S. lawmakers have argued that Washington has more of a justification—and interest—in seeking Mr. Assad's overthrow than Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's. Syria is Iran's closest strategic partner, and Damascus has played a central role in arming militant groups operating in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Many U.S. and European officials believe Mr. Assad's fall could severely weaken Tehran's regional influence, even though there are fears Syria could succumb to ethnic and sectarian clashes.

Still, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington still held out hopes that Mr. Assad could be peeled away from Iran and pushed toward embracing political and economic change.

"Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer," Mrs. Clinton said in an interview with CBS's "Face the Nation."

"What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities," she said, referring to Col. Gadhafi's actions.

President George W. Bush's administration at times sought to weaken Mr. Assad's government by funding democracy groups in Syria and imposing far-reaching sanctions. Washington also has pushed a United Nations probe into the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many U.S. officials believe Mr. Assad ordered. The Syrian leader has repeatedly denied the charges.

Mr. Obama has pursued a different tack. He has in recent months sent an ambassador to Damascus for the first time since Mr. Hariri's murder, and eased some American sanctions. U.S. officials also have actively sought to restart peace talks between Syria and Israel.

A number of U.S. officials working on the Mideast said overtures toward Mr. Assad have generated virtually nothing in return. Syria, they said, has moved even closer to Iran and its allies, and sent increasingly sophisticated weapons systems to the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Other strategists have argued that a weakened Mr. Assad could turn to the West and the peace process with Israel as an avenue through which to diminish pressure on his government. In recent weeks, the Syrian leader has told a number of interlocutors that he remains open to a peace deal with the Jewish state.

A key supporter of Mr. Assad in Washington has been Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The former presidential candidate has held nearly a half-dozen meetings with Mr. Assad in recent years, according to this staff. The two men have sought to map out the terms of a renewed Syrian-Israel peace track.

Even this month, as protests starting gripping Syria, Mr. Kerry said he thought Syria's president was an agent for change.

"President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had," Mr. Kerry said during a March speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think it's incumbent on us to try to move that relationship forward in the same way."

The Obama administration and some Western governments, however, have voiced increasing skepticism about Mr. Kerry's outreach to Mr. Assad. Last month, the State Department and French government intervened to block a scheduled meeting between the two men in Damascus, said officials briefed on the matter. They were concerned the trip to would signal Western weakness just weeks after the collapse of Lebanon's government.

A spokesman for Mr. Kerry said he couldn't comment on any trips that didn't take place.

Write to Jay Solomon at

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