By Paul Taylor
DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - As President Barack Obama starts his second term, the world's business and political elite pines for greater American engagement to tackle a thicket of security challenges.
From Syria to Mali, from Iran to the South China Sea, the United States' reluctance to be drawn into conflicts far from its shores was a leitmotiv of geopolitical debate at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos.
The absence of top Obama administration officials from the annual brainstorming and networking event in the Swiss mountains symbolized to some a perceived pullback from global leadership, even though it was Inauguration Week in Washington.
Leaders of Russia, Germany, Britain, Italy, South Africa, Jordan and many other nations made the journey.
U.S. bankers, business leaders and academics were out in force, but the most senior U.S. government officials were a Treasury undersecretary, an assistant secretary of state and the outgoing U.S. Trade Representative.
Delegates debated whether and when China would overtake America as the number one economy and global power -- estimates ranging from the early 2020s to never -- and what troubles were brewing while Washington remains in hands-off mode.
The ground rules of many Davos panels preclude identifying the speakers. One minister, shielded by that anonymity, lamented the dangers of "a world without American leadership".
Without U.S. involvement, one session was told, Syria would become a "Somalia on the Mediterranean", with Middle East states waging a proxy war via sectarian factions, some of which would export militant violence to the neighbors and to Europe.
Iran may accelerate its nuclear program to try to break out of isolation, Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University said, because Washington is squeezing it with economic sanctions but shunning either direct diplomatic engagement or military action.
"NEW TALIBAN IN SYRIA"
In a public address, King Abdullah of Jordan said his country, which had sent troops to fight Islamist militants in Afghanistan, now faces a "new Taliban in Syria", where an al-Qaeda affiliate has gained ground among forces fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. It could take years after the fall of Assad to "clean them out", the king said.
His fragile desert kingdom has taken in some 300,000 Syrian refugees, straining its thin resources and political stability. Some Syrian exiles present in Davos complained that Jordan has closed its border to Syrian opposition fighters.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country has absorbed some 150,000 refugees and serves as a rear base for rebel fighters, said the international community would one day have to apologize to the Syrian people, as it had done in Rwanda, for failing to intervene to prevent massacres.
At least 60,000 people have been killed in two years of civil war in Syria, according to the United Nations.
Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior member of the royal family, former head of intelligence and ambassador to London and Washington, said the rebels were not receiving game-changing anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons because of U.S. and manufacturers' restrictions on transfers to third parties.
U.S. strategic experts explained that Washington's sole interest in Syria was to prevent any threat to Israel and ensure chemical weapons did not fall into "terrorist" hands.
The same reluctance to be sucked into conflict meant Washington would provide little more than verbal and intelligence support for France as it battles in Mali against al-Qaeda-linked militants who have taken root in the vast ungoverned spaces of the Sahara and Sahel.
Few if any expect Obama, who burned his fingers in an early attempt to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to stop Jewish settlement building, to launch a fresh peace initiative now.
Any risk of the United States being drawn into military intervention in the Islamic world after extricating itself from Iraq and winding down its presence in Afghanistan is anathema to the Obama administration, said Gideon Rose, editor of the policy journal Foreign Affairs.
Some delegates cited Obama's strategic "pivot" towards Asia, shifting Washington's focus towards the fast-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific region, as one reason why tensions were on the rise in the Middle East and North Africa.
The president's first foreign trip after his re-election in November to southeast Asia was overshadowed by a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, a reminder of an issue on the back-burner that can explode at any time.
It came during a potentially dangerous phase in relations around east Asia between China and Japan, North Korea and its neighbors, and above all China and the United States.
Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a China expert, urged Obama to use his second term to take a major initiative to build a cooperative security relationship with China, partly to avert conflicts in the South China Sea. Rose doubted that the Obama administration would undertake anything so ambitious.
Wu Xinbo, dean of the School of International Studies at Fudan University in China, said Washington should start by ending aggressive air and sea patrolling off China's shores, which he said smacked of the "containment" of the former Soviet Union.
He voiced concern that Japan, driven by a more nationalist new government and public opinion, could pursue an "offensive" approach to a dispute over a group of small islands in the South China Sea known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Joseph Nye, a former U.S. official and Harvard academic who visited Japan and China recently as part of a semi-official U.S. delegation, said both countries were worried by the perceived growth of nationalism and militarism in the other although "this is not 1930s nationalism".
But Nye said both countries' new leaderships would give top priority to economic development and provided the United States sent careful messages to both, there was the prospect of a strong triangular relationship.
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)