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New Syrian leadership probably wouldn't benefit U.S., report says

WASHINGTON—A new U.S. intelligence report concludes that if Syrian President Bashar Assad is overthrown, his successor is unlikely to be more supportive of American policies in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East, according to current and former government officials.

The report surfaces amid growing speculation in Damascus and abroad over the fate of Assad's regime, which faces intense international isolation over its alleged role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last winter.

It highlights the delicate balancing act that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confronts as she orchestrates escalating international pressure on Syria.

The United States and France, who are coordinating diplomacy, say their aim is to change Syria's actions, not its regime.

Washington wants Syria to cooperate with a U.N. probe into Hariri's murder, stop insurgents from crossing into neighboring Iraq, cease interfering in Lebanon and crack down on the radical Palestinian groups it hosts.

"The Syrian government needs to make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior," Rice said at the U.N. Security Council late last month.

Within the Bush administration, there's a vigorous debate over how far to go in pushing for regime change in Syria.

Diplomats acknowledge that a risk of the current course is that Assad could be overthrown, especially if he's forced to turn over members of his ruling family for questioning or prosecution.

"Will it lead to a change of behavior of the regime, or a coup? We don't know," said a senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Some leaders in Europe and the Middle East suspect the United States is attempting to do in Syria what it did in Iraq—overthrow its leader—but without firing a shot.

J.D. Crouch, Bush's deputy national security adviser, met Thursday with a Syrian opposition figure, Kamal al-Labwani, at the White House, a Bush administration official confirmed Friday.

Al-Labwani played a role in last month's release of the "Damascus Declaration," which calls for peaceful political change in Syria, by five opposition groups. The meeting was to discuss that development and American support for democratic reform, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But such is the concern over destabilizing Syria that even Israel—its bitter enemy—has urged the Bush administration to proceed cautiously.

The new intelligence assessment was compiled in late September by the office of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.

The classified document concludes that if Assad is overthrown, he's likely to be replaced by someone from the ruling leadership who'd pursue the same policies or even more confrontational ones, according to officials who've read it or been briefed on its contents.

Syria is an authoritarian nation long ruled by members of the minority Alawite sect. Domestic political opposition, while emboldened by the pressure on Assad, is weak.

One of the most potent groups in society is the Muslim Brotherhood, which espouses an Islamic state. But the report sees little chance of it gaining political power soon, one of the officials said.

The U.N. Security Council voted 15-0 Monday to demand that Syria cooperate fully with German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis' investigation into Hariri's murder.

Mehlis concluded in an interim report that the killing couldn't have happened without Syrian officials' complicity. One version of the report, containing text that wasn't supposed to have been made public, cites a witness claiming that the president's brother, Maher Assad, and brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the powerful head of Syria's military intelligence, were involved.

With even Syria's traditional Arab allies not rushing to support it, the country is more isolated than at any time in recent memory.

Even among Syrians there are differing views on how much danger Assad is in. He took over when his father died five years ago.

"There is no chaos," Ayman Abdel Nour, a reformer within Syria's ruling Baath party, said in a telephone interview from Damascus. "There is no probability, zero, for a coup."

Because opposition and human rights groups are suppressed under an emergency law, "we cannot expect anything from them," said Abdel Nour, who runs a Web site featuring vigorous political discussion.

Yet Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian author and expert on Middle East minorities, said the regime could be close to collapsing and that opposition groups were gaining confidence.

"There's a general feeling that the country could implode," said Abdulhamid, who's currently at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a research center.

He praised the Bush administration for maintaining a solid international front on Syria, in sharp contrast to the deep splits that developed over Iraq. "They've played their cards right" and maximized pressure on Assad, he said.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): US-SYRIA

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051103 Syria trade

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20000623 Assad bio

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