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Despite Warnings, U.S. Leans on Syria

October 31, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has embarked on an effort to build strong international pressure on Syria despite warnings from some Arab leaders and Israelis that doing so could lead to a chaotic collapse or even the rise of a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Damascus, U.S. officials say.

American diplomats have been trying to enlist other nations to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad as the United Nations weighs how to respond to an investigator's report implicating top Syrian officials in the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Foreign ministers of U.N. Security Council member countries are to meet today to consider a resolution that would press Syria to cooperate more fully in the investigation.

The Bush administration has increasingly focused on Syria as a central obstacle to its goals in the region, and wants to use outrage over the assassination to force Damascus to halt the flow of insurgents into Iraq, loosen its grip on neighboring Lebanon and end its support of Islamic militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

But some Arab leaders and other allies say the Syrian government is already fragile and isolated. They have warned that international sanctions or other measures could topple the regime, destabilizing an important corner of the Middle East and possibly opening the way for Islamist groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The outlawed organization, which is alleged by some to have ties to Al Qaeda, has been badly weakened by Assad's government and that of his long-ruling father, Hafez Assad. However, it still is widely considered to have the broadest base of support of any Syrian opposition group.

Some Israeli officials have been quoted in Jerusalem recently as privately warning that Assad's fall could stir chaos on Israel's northern border and hand power to the Muslim Brotherhood.

A senior administration official acknowledged the risk, and that U.S. officials had found no preferable successor. Nevertheless, he said that in meetings of top U.S. officials, "no one is arguing that we shouldn't push them too hard. Quite the opposite."

The official, who declined to be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, suggested that the United States might be able to work with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood's organizations are mainstream in some countries, he said, though extreme in others.

The group, organized in Egypt in 1928, rejects Western influences and urges a return to the principles of the Koran. Besides Egypt and Syria, it has branches in Jordan, Sudan and the Palestinian territories. It has been responsible for acts of violence. However, some leaders contend its goals are nonviolent and reformist.

In Iraq, the official noted, the United States has been able to deal with the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni organization that has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. He said that although some Israelis have warned about the Syrian group, the government as a whole is ambivalent. The Israeli government officially declines comment on the issue, saying it is a Syrian matter.

The U.S. official said that if Assad's fall led to disorder, it could actually help American objectives by disrupting the traffic of insurgents that U.S. officials believe is now aided by some officials in the Damascus regime. He said Assad's government was fragile, but added that Middle Eastern governments sometimes have a stronger hold on power than appears.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that their goal is to change behavior, not the Syrian regime itself. But the official's comments suggest that if the administration is not seeking regime change, neither is it working hard to avoid it.

Other senior U.S. officials have also been emphasizing the American determination to press hard on Syria.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reported that she and other senior officials had been visiting European and Arab capitals to build pressure on Damascus.

"This is a period in which the international community is deepening the isolation of Syria, for a number of reasons," she said. "We want a change in Syrian behavior."

Although Washington says its focus is on diplomacy, she declined to rule out military action.

Middle East experts believe that further international pressure on Syria could put the regime at risk. The country has been growing poorer and more isolated, and it would be hit hard if Europe, a key trading partner, imposed sanctions.

Some experts have speculated that the United States would not press too hard because of the risk that a government collapse could leave chaos or an even less friendly regime in Assad's wake.

Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria specialist at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, said he believed that if the Syrian government imploded, "the best equipped to fill the vacuum of power would be the Muslim Brotherhood."

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