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U.S. is quietly getting ready for a Syria without an Assad

By Helene Cooper

LAST UPDATED: 3:51 a.m. HST, Sep 20, 2011

WASHINGTON » Increasingly convinced that President Bashar Assad of Syria will not be able to remain in power, the Obama administration has begun to make plans for U.S. policy in the region after he exits.

In coordination with Turkey, the United States has been exploring how to deal with the possibility of a civil war among Syria’s Alawite, Druse, Christian and Sunni sects, a conflict that could quickly ignite other tensions in an volatile region.

While other countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Damascus, Obama administration officials say they are leaving in place the U.S. ambassador, Robert S. Ford, despite the risks, so he can maintain contact with opposition leaders and the leaders of the country’s myriad sects and religious groups.

State Department officials have also been pressing Syria’s opposition leaders to unite as they work to bring down the Assad government, and to build a new government.

The Obama administration is determined to avoid a repeat of the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although the United States did not stint in its effort to oust Saddam Hussein, many foreign policy experts now say the undertaking came at the expense of detailed planning about how to manage Iraq’s warring factions after his removal.

Syria is sure to be discussed when President Barack Obama meets Tuesday with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey on the periphery of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, administration officials say. A senior administration official said the abandonment of Assad by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and European nations would increase his isolation, particularly as his military became more exhausted by the lengthening crackdown.

Another Obama administration official said that with 90 percent of Syria’s oil exports going to Europe, shutting the European market to Damascus could have a crippling effect on the Syrian economy and could put additional pressure on Assad’s government.

“Back in the 1990s, if Syria wanted credit and trade and loans that they couldn’t get from the United States, they went to the Europeans,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Obama administration official.

Now, Takeyh said, Europe has joined the United States in imposing sanctions on Syrian exports, including its critical oil sector.

Aside from Iran, he said, Syria has few allies to turn to.

“The Chinese recognize their economic development is more contingent on their relationship with us and Europe than on whether Assad or Gadhafi survives,” he said, referring to the deposed Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi.

Eight months ago, the thought of Syria without a member of the Assad family at the helm seemed about as far-fetched as the thought of Egypt without Hosni Mubarak or Libya without Gadhafi.

But intelligence officials and diplomats in the Middle East, Europe and the United States increasingly believe Assad may not be able to beat back the gathering storm at the gates of Damascus.

Obama’s call last month for Assad to step down came after months of internal debate, which included lengthy discussions about whether a Syria without Assad would lead to the kind of bloody civil war that consumed Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

The shift moved the administration from discussing whether to call for Assad’s ouster to discussing how to help bring it about, and what to do after that.

“There’s a real consensus that he’s beyond the pale and over the edge,” the senior Obama administration official said. “Intelligence services say he’s not coming back.”

To be sure, Assad may yet prove as immovable as his father, Hafez, was before him. Many foreign policy analysts say that the longer Assad remains in power, the more violent the country will become. And that violence, they say, could unintentionally serve Assad’s interests by allowing him to use it to justify a continuing crackdown.

Many factors may make his exit more difficult than the departures of Mubarak in Egypt and President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. For one thing, both the United States and Europe have become more distracted in recent weeks by their economic crises.

Furthermore, while Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Yemen all imploded, those eruptions were largely internal, with their most significant ramifications limited to the examples they set in the Arab world. A collapse in Syria, on the other hand, could lead to an external explosion that would affect Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and even Iraq, foreign policy experts say, particularly if it dissolves into an Iraq-style civil war.

“The Sunnis are increasingly arming, and the situation is polarizing,” said Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official in the State Department and the author of “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.”

“Iran and Hezbollah is backing the regime,” Nasr said. “There’s a lot of awareness across the regime that this is going to be pretty ugly.”

That awareness is fueling the desire to plan for a post-Assad era, Obama administration officials say.

“Nobody wants another Iraq,” one administration official said Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

At the same time, the administration does not want to look as if the United States is trying to orchestrate the outcome in Syria, for fear that the image of U.S. intervention might do the Syrian opposition more harm than good. In particular, administration officials say that they do not want to give the Iranian government — which has huge interests in the Syrian government and is Assad’s biggest supporter — an excuse to intervene.

But one administration official pointed to the remarkable call this month by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for Assad to ease up on his crackdown as a sign that even Iran’s leaders are worried about the Syrian president’s prospects.

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