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“There’s a different leader in Syria now,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

Conservatives wonder whether Mr. Assad, seeing that those who had scolded the Bush team for not talking to him are now in power, calculated he could put down the unrest in his country without U.S. interference.

“Absolutely,” said Michael Rubin, a Middle East researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. “Syria is just one symptom of a greater problem.”