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November 9, 2012

INTERNATIONAL: Obama’s return a test of evolving foreign policy

(Continued)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — SYRIA

U.S. allies appear to be expecting a new, bolder approach from Obama on Syria. But it remains to be seen if the U.S. plans to change course in any significant way in a conflict that has already claimed more than 36,000 lives since March 2011.

World powers have shown no appetite for foreign military intervention, and there are fears that arming the fractious opposition could backfire, with powerful weapons falling into the hands of extremists. The U.S. supplies only non-lethal assistance to the political opposition.

Against this backdrop, a diplomatic process that has proven increasingly moribund and faltering has been the only real option for peace thus far. NATO has insisted it will not intervene in Syria without a clear United Nations mandate. But Syrian President Bashar Assad’s allies, Russia and China, have blocked strong action against Damascus at the U.N. Security Council.

Britain this week called on the U.S. and other allies to do more to shape the Syrian opposition into a coherent force, saying Obama’s re-election is an opportunity for the world to take stronger action to end the deadlocked civil war.

And Turkey said NATO members — including the United States — have discussed using Patriot missiles along the Syrian border. It was unclear whether the purpose was to protect a safe zone inside Syria or to protect Turkey from Syrian regime attacks.

In the first official comments from Damascus on the U.S. presidential elections, an editorial in the ruling Baath party’s newspaper said “the Syrian crisis would be politically resolved” during Obama’s second term. A U.S.-led military intervention is unlikely, the al-Baath newspaper also claimed Thursday.

AFGHANISTAN

While the war in Afghanistan, now in its 12th year, was barely a topic on the campaign trail, the country will certainly command a great deal of Obama’s attention in his second term.

Obama soon will receive his top military officials’ recommendations about how fast to withdraw the roughly 66,000 U.S. troops still in Afghanistan. The first 33,000 American troops withdrew by the end of September.

His administration is expected to begin in earnest crafting an agreement with the Afghan government to define the rules for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 when nearly all U.S. and NATO combat forces will have left the country.

That same year, Afghans are scheduled to elect a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, who is prevented by the constitution from running for a third term. The U.S. and international community does not want the next presidential election marred by the same fraud as in 2009. Some Afghans worry that having the election the same year that the international troops end their combat mission in Afghanistan will further destabilize the nation.

Afghans also are worried whether their own soldiers and police will be able to secure the country, which remains riddled with poverty, corruption, a weak government and political instability. The U.S.-led coalition says it is confident that the country will be stable and that the Afghan security forces — now 352,000 strong — will be able to keep their homeland from becoming a haven for international terrorists.

The Obama administration also will continue to try to lure the Taliban’s top leaders to the negotiating table in hopes of finding a political resolution, but these overtures have yielded little traction so far.

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