Scores of Syrians have been killed or arrested recently in the greatest challenge to President Bashar Assad's 11-year rule. The government there has been able to keep a lid on the situation so far, but it is starting to set off alarm bells in Washington
Syria may have a dismal economy and few natural resources, but it is right in the center of the Middle East and is critical to U.S. interests
. Ted Kattouf, a former American ambassador to the country, says for that reason, Syria has always been able to punch above its weight.
Kattouf says that includes supporting Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas
. He says Syria has also been able to "successfully to manipulate events in Lebanon
"And then, of course, there's the whole issue of Israel
," he adds.
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 Assad is seriously weakened or overthrown because of the current uprising, it will not only affect U.S. foreign policy. It is likely to have a spillover effect and upset the dynamic of the region.
Analysts say the Obama administration is in a bind about whom to back
— protesters demanding freedom and reform, or the Assad regime to help keep a lid on a potentially explosive situation.
There are some, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who saw Assad as a reformer