UNITED NATIONS,(Reuters) – By tightening the diplomatic noose around Syria”s leadership, the United States is aiming to ensure a weakened, compliant government in Damascus without the use of military force.
The Bush administration, tempered by the Iraq experience, appears to be approaching the conflict over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri with more caution.
It is striving for a "win-win situation" in which a "weak and frightened Bashar al-Assad (stays in power but) is more cooperative," said Jon Alterman, head of Middle East programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But some experts worry the growing international pressure could cause events in Syria to spin out of control.
The latest salvo came on Monday in a tough resolution sponsored by the United States, France and Britain and approved on a unanimous 15-0 vote by the U.N. Security Council.
It ordered Syria to cooperate fully with an investigation into Hariri”s Feb. 14 assassination or face unspecified further action, an implicit reference to economic sanctions.
The chief U.N. investigator, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, already has named Syrian officials as suspects in the assassination in the plot to kill Hariri and 22 others.
He found that the killing was organized by Syrian security officials and their Lebanese allies and that Syria”s government had interfered with efforts to complete the evidence-gathering.
Washington accuses Damascus of stoking insurgents who fuel the conflict in nearby Iraq, of undermining the Mideast peace process and of funding "terrorist" acts in addition to the killing Hariri.
Iraq”s shadow hovered over Monday”s deliberations at U.N. headquarters in New York, prompting questions about whether the United States might eventually use military action to enforce the Syria resolution, which was approved under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, meaning it is militarily enforceable.
"No one”s talking about anything like that," insisted British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to reporters.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed that the resolution called for further Security Council deliberation and approval if coercive measures are to be imposed against Syria.
"That is what we intend to live by," she said.
Even the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, an administration hardliner, was measured in discussing possible future actions against Damascus. "I think the Syrians should read this(resolution) as a statement by the council that we are determined that they cooperate," he said.
While there is broad agreement about keeping the pressure on Syria to bring Hariri”s killers to justice, some analysts acknowledge that the situation in Syria could unravel into chaos or coup.
A U.S. official told Reuters the U.S. view is that the international pressure tactics "needn”t lead to regime change in Syria" if Assad and other Syrian officials make the right decisions on cooperating with the U.N. probe.
A European diplomat said Washington and its allies have little good intelligence about political happenings in Damascus.
And a congressional expert on Mideast issues expressed concern the administration has "not thought through what the likely (Syria)scenario is."
"What I keep hearing from everyone … is that the regime is weakening and the fear factor (among Syrians) is diminishing," he said, but he wondered whether opposition to Assad”s rule might be "reaching a critical mass?"
Much depends on Mehlis” probe and whether he implicates Assad himself in Hariri”s assassination, officials said.
"If the international community believes Assad and his circle are guilty of killing Hariri, it”s very difficult to see how they can be left in power," said the congressional aide, who is restricted from speaking on the record.
But Alterman said it is unclear who might succeed Assad. Neither the military nor pro-democracy activists have the capacity to take over, he said.