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“The unrest has given al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula more freedom to operate within the country in expanded safe havens,” Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the Weekly Standard last month.

Yemen’s escalating violence, an economy on the brink of collapse, and the prospect of widespread civil war or a fragmented state may present the White House with a very dark reality — the emergence of a terrorist sanctuary on the Arabian Peninsula hosting an outfit that has targeted the U.S. homeland,” she wrote.

Human rights groups estimate that Mr. Assad’s regime has killed more than 1,600 Syrians and imprisoned more than 15,000. The army last week launched an assault on the city of Homs. Amateur video showed a mostly deserted city, as residents went on strike and either fled or hunkered down inside their homes.

Syrian state media say Mr. Assad has begun a national dialogue aimed at ushering in multiparty democracy. But Human Rights Watch reports the regime continues to kill or arrest those advocating freedom.

“President Assad talks reform, but continues to practice repression, not only through the widespread killings of demonstrators, but also through mass arrests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Who does President Assad mean to include in his ‘national dialogue’ when his security forces are targeting the very people who might have something to say to him?”

Still, Mr. Springborg argues: “It is much better to have an ‘Arab Spring’ than no spring at all. It has demonstrated the limits of authoritarian power. It has put on notice all regimes in the Arab world and beyond.

“This is a region that has been sunk into sort of a continuation of the Cold War for the past two generations. So something had to be done, and it wasn’t going to be done if the people didn’t take to the streets.”