SCOTT SIMON, Host:
And there were more anti-government demonstrations in Syria yesterday. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in several cities. Scores of Syrians have been killed or arrested recently in the greatest challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's 11-year rule. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, massive unrest in Syria could have serious implications for the whole region.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Ted Kattouf, a former American ambassador to the country, says for that reason, Syria has always been able to punch above its weight.
TED KATTOUF: And the way they've done that is by ensuring that they have their hands on the levers of issues with which the United States is involved and about which it cares a great deal. I'm speaking of Syria's support for Hezbollah. I'm speaking about Hamas in Gaza. We're speaking about a country that has been able successfully to manipulate events in Lebanon for decades. And then, of course, there's the whole issue of Israel.
NORTHAM: The Obama administration had been trying to bring Syria into the fold of the Arab-Israeli peace process with little success. And at the same time, it has been trying to peel Syria away from one of its main allies, Iran. If President Bashar al-Assad is seriously weakened or overthrown because of the current uprising, it will affect more than just U.S. foreign policy; it's likely to have a spillover effect and upset the dynamic of the region, says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist, exiled in the U.S.
AMMAR ABDULHAMID: If the situation deteriorated in Syria, as Assad himself is threatening, then frankly Syria's role in the future will become more and more of a destabilizing factor.
NORTHAM: Ambassador Kattouf says if the Assad regime topples, it could unravel the intricate network of Syrian relations with its allies and its foes. Kattouf says this could represent both an opportunity and danger for the U.S. and others.
KATTOUF: Iran and Hezbollah would both be tremendously dismayed if they thought that the leadership of Bashar al-Assad was about to be toppled in Syria. It would be a strategic setback for both of them.
NORTHAM: Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
JOSHUA LANDIS: It's going to be very important to see which way he wants to move forward. He's laid down the gauntlet on revolution but he's said we want to reform. America has to sit down with its allies - Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Europeans - and figure out a way forward and talk to Bashar al Assad.
NORTHAM: But Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the U.S. doesn't have a lot of leverage with Syria. Tabler, who spent a decade in Syria, says Assad is now cornered. And while he needs to make some hard decision about what he wants to do, that's just not in his nature.
ANDREW TABLER: It's particularly hard for him because until now he's ruled by indecision, by not making clear decisions, by not really clearly reforming. And very much he is begin pressed to do so at the moment, to declare himself, and this is not the way he rules.
NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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