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More than a year after political protests began in Syria, the regime’s violent crackdown continues, the options for U.S. action are murky, and the world remains divided over what, if anything, more to do.
Arizona Republican Senator John McCain made the strongest appeal for action to date this week, advocating U.S.-led air strikes to help the Syrian opposition that by U.S. assessments remains unfocused, unorganized and, in some respects, unknown. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other administration officials countered the calls for intervention by urging caution and citing intelligence assessments that President Bashar al- Assad could cling to power indefinitely.
The latest U.S. push for diplomatic action by United Nations Security Council has foundered on Russia’s support for its longtime Mideast ally. Analysts such as Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, foresee no early end to the conflict.
“Six months ago, there was a specific set of assumptions with regard to the opposition’s ability to create more cohesion over time,” Nerguizian said in an interview. “There were also assumptions about the regime, the security apparatus and the likelihood there would be real divisions and real cracks. On both assumptions, the international community has been proven wrong.”
This puts the U.S, Europe and the Gulf states in a bind, having gone on the record saying Assad’s days are numbered. Now, they are dealing with a scenario in which that may not come to pass for a long time, said diplomats at the UN.
More than 7,500 people have died in Assad’s crackdown, according to the UN. The turmoil has sent the value of the Syrian pound down almost 20 percent against the U.S. dollar, and more on the black market.
A bloody siege of the city of Homs last month led to intensified international pressure as Syrian forces used tanks and artillery to bombard residential neighborhoods. UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos, the first envoy to visit Homs’ Baba Amr district this week, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that she was “horrified” by what she saw there.
Eighty-two people were killed nationwide yesterday, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said on its website. UN envoy Kofi Annan is set to meet with Assad today to seek a cease-fire as a prelude to negotiations on a political transition. His two-day trip will be limited to Damascus and not include areas ravaged by Assad’s shelling, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday she will continue her diplomatic push with her Russian counterpart at the UN on March 12. “I talked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a few days ago about our hope that Russia will play a constructive role in ending the bloodshed and working toward a political transition in Syria,” Clinton said in remarks to reporters, describing the “intense” diplomatic effort under way.
“We continue to urge the international community to come together to take action” on humanitarian relief and a political transition, Clinton said.
Syria is now “topic one, two and three” in talks with Russia, State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. Still, she added that the administration isn’t optimistic about winning Moscow’s approval for the latest U.S.- backed UN resolution. Russia, along with China, has already vetoed two resolutions aimed at censuring Assad.
“We are frankly not overly optimistic that an agreed text will be reached in the near future,” she said yesterday.
The UN diplomats, who weren’t authorized to speak on the record, said efforts to get Russia to sign on to the latest Syria resolution have died after three days of meetings, in part because of how much the text was watered down in the attempt to win Moscow’s support. As a result, they said, Clinton and Lavrov will have little to work toward at their Monday meeting.
The hope that the presidential election victory of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might lead to a change of policy on Syria has dissipated, they said. Syria remains Moscow’s last outpost of influence in the Arab world, buying its weapons and hosting its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.
The heart of the dispute between Russia and the U.S. lies in the two nations’ differing assessments of Assad’s longevity, the diplomats said. The Russians clearly are invested in Assad’s future and survival, the diplomats said.
Seen from Washington, though, the ouster of Assad’s regime would be a major strategic blow to Iran, depriving Tehran of its lone Arab ally and its main route for shipping arms and men to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This puts the U.S, Western Europe, and the Gulf states in a bind, having said that Assad’s days are numbered, only to find themselves dealing with a scenario in which that may not come to pass for a long time, the UN diplomats said.
Even as President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron have predicted Assad’s demise, U.S. military and intelligence services have offered starkly different assessments.
“I think that he could remain in power for some time,” Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 8.
General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to Congress last month that the Assad regime and its military remain a “viable, cohesive and effective force,” while James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, testified that without some kind of external intervention, Assad will “hang in there and continue to do as he’s done.”
Lawmakers who advocate military intervention aren’t satisfied with declarations that Assad’s “days are numbered,” as Clinton said at a meeting of so-called “Friends of Syria” nations in Tunis on Feb. 24.
“Tell that to the people of Homs,” McCain said on the Senate floor March 5 as he called for U.S.-led air strikes against Syrian forces to create civilian safe havens. “Tell that to the people of Idlib, or Hama, or the other cities that Assad’s forces are now moving against. Nothing in this world is predetermined. And claims about the inevitability of events can often be a convenient way to abdicate responsibility.”
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is joined by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent, and South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in seeking U.S. military intervention. McCain also argues that the U.S. has “a clear national security interest” in the fall of a regime that is Iran’s major ally.
“In addition to the moral and humanitarian interests at stake in Syria, what is just as compelling, if not more so, are the strategic and geopolitical interests,” McCain said in his Senate remarks.
The U.S. military is examining a range of options at Obama’s request, from providing humanitarian aid to imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 7.
Still, Panetta has urged caution in response to the calls for intervention. “What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action right now,” Panetta said in testimony with Dempsey.
“Before I recommend that we put our sons and daughters in uniform in harm’s way,” he said, “I’ve got to make very sure that we know what the mission is, I’ve got to be very sure that we know whether we can achieve that mission and at what price.”
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