President Barack Obama warned Friday that an “enclave for extremism” could fill a leadership void in war-torn Syria, a chilling scenario for an already tumultuous region, especially for Jordan, Syria’s neighbor and a nation at the crossroads of the struggle for stability in the Middle East.
In a significant step toward easing regional tensions, Obama also brokered a phone call between leaders from Israel and Turkey that resulted in an extraordinary apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a deadly 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla. The call marked a diplomatic victory for the president and a crucial realignment in the region, given Israel’s and Turkey’s shared interests, in particular the fear that Syria’s civil war could spill over their respective borders.
Obama said he remains confident that embattled Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s government ultimately will collapse. But he warned that when that happens, Syria would not be “put back together perfectly,” and he said he fears the nation could become a hotbed for extremists.
“I am very concerned about Syria becoming an enclave for extremism, because extremists thrive in chaos,” Obama said during a joint news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. “They thrive in failed states; they thrive in power vacuums.”
More than 70,000 people have been killed during the two-year conflict in Syria, making it by far the deadliest of the Arab Spring uprisings that have roiled the region since 2011. Longtime autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya have been ousted, ushering in new governments that sometimes are at odds with the Obama administration and its Mideast allies.
Obama’s 24-hour stop in Jordan marked his first visit to an Arab nation since the 2011 Mideast protests began. Jordan’s monarchy has clung to power in part by enacting political reforms, including parliamentary elections and significant revisions to the country’s 60-year-old constitution.
Still, tensions continue to simmer, with the restive population questioning the speed and seriousness of the changes.
Protecting Abdullah is paramount to U.S. interests. The 51-year-old king is perhaps Obama’s strongest Arab ally and a key player in efforts to jumpstart peace talks between Palestinians and Israel. Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel.