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Syrian leadership void may draw extremists, Obama warns during stop in Jordan

| Friday, March 22, 2013, 8:39 p.m.

AMMAN, Jordan — President Obama warned on 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.

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 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.”

Obama's 24-hour stop in Jordan marked his first visit to an Arab nation since the Arab Spring 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. The flood of Syrian refugees has overwhelmed the country of 6 million people, straining Jordan's resources.

Obama announced that his administration planned to work with Congress to allocate $200 million to Jordan to help ease the financial burden.

Abdullah firmly declared Jordan would not close its borders to the refugees, many of whom are women and children.

“This is something that we just can't do,” he said. “It's not the Jordanian way.”

The president opened the last full day of his Mideast trip with a series of stops around Jerusalem and Bethlehem, all steeped in political and religious symbolism.

Accompanied by Israeli leaders, Obama laid wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who died in 1904, and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.

Then the president paid tribute to the victims of the Holocaust in a solemn visit to the Yad Vashem memorial. “We have a choice to acquiesce to evil or make real our solemn vow — never again,” Obama told a small gathering on a mount overlooking Jerusalem.

After he spoke, a survivor of Buchenwald offered a comparison between the Nazi genocide and the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau told Obama about a Buchenwald liberator who sought him out after the war and asked his forgiveness “for being late.”

Lau said to Obama: “Don't be too late.”

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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