WASHINGTON - Despite the clear opposition of the Barack Obama administration and apparent ambivalence on the part of the right-wing government in Israel, neo-conservative hawks here have set their sights on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who they hope will be the next domino to fall to the so-called "Arab Spring".
In a much-noted op-ed published Saturday by the Washington Post, Elliot Abrams, who served as George W. Bush's top Mideast adviser, called for the administration to take a series of diplomatic and economic measures similar to those taken against Libya before the U.S. and NATO's military intervention, to weaken Assad's hold on power and embolden the opposition.
He was joined the same day by the Wall Street Journal's hard-line editorial page which urged Washington to support the opposition "in as many ways as possible".
"It's impossible to know who would succeed Assad if his minority Allawite regime fell, but it's hard to imagine many that would be worse for U.S. interests," the Journal's editorial board asserted. Its increasingly neo-conservative counterpart at the Washington Post, which last week called Assad "an unredeemable thug", urged the administration to side "decisively with those in Syria seeking genuine change".
And on Tuesday, a major candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, chimed in with a full-throated endorsement of Abrams' recommendations and described Assad himself as a "killer".
The latest campaign, which comes as the administration finds itself ever more deeply embroiled in a civil war in Libya and remains pre-occupied by challenges to friendly regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, was launched as it became clear over the past week that Assad faces what most observers here believe is the biggest crisis of his nearly 11-year-old reign.
More than 60 people have reportedly been killed in clashes between protestors and police around the country since demonstrations erupted in the southern town of Dera'a two weeks ago.
Expectations that Assad, who dismissed his government Tuesday, would announce a series of reforms, including an end to a nearly 50-year-old emergency law, were dashed Wednesday when he blamed "conspiracies" for the unrest in a speech to parliament. Although he suggested that major reforms were indeed impending, he failed to specify either what they were or when they might be implemented.
"There will be more demonstrations," predicted Bassam Haddad, a Syria expert at George Mason University, who added that the regime remains divided between reformists and conservatives. "If Bashar gets his way, I feel the response [to further protests] will be mild. But if the hard-liners get their way, there will be a crackdown that will have a snowball effect and that could turn into a nightmare for the regime."
That would likely be welcomed by the neo-conservatives, some of whom have already suggested that a violent repression will enable them to invoke Washington's intervention against Libya as a precedent for taking strong action against his regime.
The Obama administration, which has tried to engage Damascus as part of a broader strategy to weaken its alliance with Iran, has regarded Assad himself as reform-minded, but limited in his ability to move against an entrenched opposition in the security forces and his ruling Baath party.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Assad as a "different leader", noting that "many of the members of Congress who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer."
The remark infuriated neo-conservatives who have long considered the Assad dynasty as Public Enemy Number Two, after Iran, in the Middle East due to its ties with Tehran, its long-standing support for Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestine's Hamas, and, since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, its alleged backing for Sunni insurgents there.
Indeed, the notorious 1996 "Clean Break" memo that was prepared for then-incoming Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu by several prominent neo-conservatives who, seven years later, would take senior posts in the Bush administration, depicted the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as one crucial step in a larger strategy designed to destabilise Syria.
During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, Abrams reportedly urged Israel's defence minister to expand Israel's bombing campaign to include targets inside Syria, a course that was supported publicly by other neo- conservatives outside the administration. To their frustration, the Israelis rejected their advice.
Neo-conservatives and their Congressional allies have fought tooth and nail against efforts by the Obama administration to begin normalising relations with Damascus that were effectively broken off by the Bush administration after it blamed the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut on Assad's regime.
Now, however, they clearly believe that the Arab Spring has presented a new opportunity for "regime change" in Damascus, one that must be seized without delay.
Abrams, who exerted a major influence on Bush's policy toward Syria, has called in particular for the administration to strongly and continuously denounce the regime, withdraw its ambassador, press for international action against Assad, including seeking his indictment by the International Criminal Court, and using Washington's influence with the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia to persuade the Arab League, which expelled Libya earlier this month, to apply the same sanction to Damascus.
But, aside from condemning specific incidents of violence by the security forces, as well as an expression of disappointment Wednesday at Assad's speech before parliament, the administration has shown no inclination to follow this advice.
"Washington already has its hands full in the Middle East," noted Dov Zakheim, who served in a senior Pentagon post under Bush.
"In an environment in which American forces are engaged in three Muslim countries, the last thing Washington needs is to verbally trap itself in a situation in which pressure for yet more military action begins to mount," he wrote in the Shadow Government blog at foreignpolicy.com Monday.
"The last thing the United States need is to get enmeshed in Syria's troubles," he added, noting that "[a]n unstable Syria might be tempted, as neither Assad pere nor fils were, to attack Israel on the Golan front, or to push Hezbollah into a war that Damascus would then widen…"
Similarly, Paul Pillar, a retired CIA analyst who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East between 2000 and 2005, warned that regime change could turn out very poorly for both the U.S. and Israel and that Abrams' and the Journal's confidence that any successor regime would be preferable to Assad's was ill-founded.
"Syria under Assad is probably the most secular place in the Middle East," he noted in his blog at the nationalinterest.org website. "The influence of Islamism, in whatever form, in Syria has nowhere to go but up if there is regime change. That would not be welcome to those in Israel and the United States who worry about any political role for Islamists."
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.