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June 4, 2011

Senior US Official: “Assad probably has the wherewithal to be sitting in the palace for quite some time,”

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hillary Clinton urged other Arab states, Russia and China to join in protesting the violence. But the Obama administration still wasn’t quite ready to give up on Mr. 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… …

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.”…

“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 Mr. Assad of facilitating the flow of al Qaeda fighters into Iraq … … President Obama’s early signals were mixed. In March of 2009, Messrs. Kerry and Assad and their wives dined together in the ancient heart of Damascus, just down the street from where the head of John the Baptist is thought to be entombed. For hours the men talked bilateral relations and Mideast peace, forging a strong working relationship, according to Syrian officials and congressional aides. Mr. Kerry says he acted independently but coordinated the visit with the White House….

Mr. Kerry, meanwhile, became Mr. Assad’s champion in the U.S., urging lawmakers and policymakers to embrace the Syrian leader as a partner in stabilizing the Mideast. At a dinner in Washington in late 2009, Mr. Kerry described how the Syrian leader bemoaned the growing conservatism in his country. Mr. Assad’s London-born wife, Asma, had to wear a head-scarf when visiting Damascus’s historic Umayyad mosque, while his mother hadn’t decades earlier, Mr. Kerry recounted Syria’s leader saying. “He doesn’t want to lead a religious-based country,” Mr. Kerry told the audience… …

In the second half of last year, Mr. Kerry began shuttling between the Syrians and the Israelis, according to people briefed on the diplomacy. The senator believed the talks were progressing so well that last fall he and Mr. Assad’s aides secretly drafted terms they hoped would allow for the resumption of direct Israeli-Syrian peace talks, according to people familiar with their work. The plan: Israelis would agree to resume talks and commit to returning all Syrian lands seized during the 1967 Six Day War. Mr. Assad would pledge to distance himself from Iran and Hezbollah…. This January, however, the U.S. diplomatic pursuit of Damascus began to fray. American officials and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had pressed Mr. Assad to help stabilize Lebanon. But that month, Hezbollah and Syria’s other Lebanese allies engineered the ouster of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a close Western ally. Mr. Kerry was booked into Damascus’s Four Seasons Hotel in anticipation of his seventh meeting with the Syrian leader. But days before the senator’s trip, the White House and French government intervened to block the meeting, according to U.S. and European officials. They didn’t want to give Syria’s strongman the stamp of approval that a visit from the powerful senator would imply….”

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