Sunday, February 05, 2012

U.S. Steps Up Pressure to Overthrow Syrian Government

U.S. Steps Up Pressure to Oust Assad

Clinton Calls for Coalition to Force Syria's Leader from Power, Says Russia-China Veto Lifts Chances for a 'Brutal Civil War

Wall Street Journal

CAIRO—The U.S. called for a new international coalition to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power and end an 11-month uprising that looks poised to enter its bloodiest phase yet.

Government supporters attended a rally in Damascus to demand an end to unrest in the country. Another 30 civilians were killed in Syria on Sunday, a human-rights group said.
.Syria's opposition on Sunday said it had little choice left but an all-out armed struggle against the regime after Russia and China vetoed a United Nations resolution calling on Mr. Assad to step aside.

Damascus, meanwhile, appeared emboldened by the diplomatic support—cracking down harshly against opposition forces over the weekend—and is vowing to press on with its offensive.

The veto left Washington, European and Arab states grappling for an alternate plan, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday called the failure to pass the U.N. resolution a "travesty" and predicted it "will actually increase the chances for a brutal civil war."

She called for an international coalition to form a "friends of democratic Syria" group to ramp up pressure to force Mr. Assad from power by stiffening sanctions, working to cut off funding and arms shipments to the regime, and channeling humanitarian aide to besieged communities

"Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future," Mrs. Clinton said during a visit to Sofia, Bulgaria on Sunday.

With military involvement unlikely and diplomacy so far unsuccessful, Washington and its allies appear to have limited options for how to end the conflict.

The sort of coalition described Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to have much impact on the ground in Syria any time soon, analysts said.

Instead, it looks increasingly that Syria's rebel fighters will enter an increasingly violent and sectarian battle with the regime, say analysts and officials.

Before Saturday's vote, the opposition had an incentive to display peaceful resistance to try to draw in the U.N., while the regime, too, was motivated to restrain itself to hold off any U.N. resolution, said analysts.

"Now both sides are likely to move quickly toward a bloodier showdown," said Theodore Karasik, an analyst with the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

Indeed, the commander of rebel Syrian soldiers, known as the Free Syrian Army, told the Associated Press on Sunday that the only choice left was to oust Mr. Assad by force. "There is no other road," the commander, Col. Riad al-Asaad said.

The deadly shelling of Homs just before the U.N. vote on Saturday morning, which activists said left more than 200 people dead in one of the most violent episodes yet, may be an early taste of what is to come as a strained loyalist army struggles to quash a spreading rebellion.

On Sunday, rebel operations against Syrian forces killed 28 soldiers, most of them in the restive northern province of Idlib, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based opposition group. Syrian forces, meanwhile, killed 30 civilians, most of them dying in continued fighting in Homs, the group said.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since March, says the U.N.

Though the regime has proved resilient and remains firmly entrenched in power in Damascus and other pockets of Syria, army defections, spreading unrest and international isolation appear to be wearing it down. Syrian security forces have proved in recent weeks that they can reclaim territory from rebel forces, but that they can't hold on to it once unrest sprouts elsewhere.

Mr. Assad's forces appear to be increasingly resorting to a brutal game of whack-a-mole by relying on increasingly heavy weaponry, said Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert at the Washington Institute for Near Policy, referring to the carnival game where players bash a mole which rears its head from one hole, only to see it pop up from another.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries with stakes in Syria are seen stepping up financial or military support to one side or the other in the conflict.

The Western-allied Persian Gulf monarchies are increasingly assertive in trying to shape the region, even resorting to military action in Libya, after what they perceive to be gains by Iran in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. They are eager to deliver a setback to Iran by helping topple the Assad regime, analyst say.

Turkey's government said the Russian and Chinese vetoes were "deplorable," while deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Ankara "could not just stand by and look" as violence intensified in Syria. Local press reported that the government was considering military intervention to help quell the violence, though state-run Anatolian News Agency said the foreign ministry denied it.

Turkey's government has previously floated the idea of setting up a "buffer zone" inside Syrian territory if fighting prompted refugees to flee toward Turkish territory, compromising national security. Ankara has stressed it wouldn't take such a step without U.N. backing.

"What's going to happen now is everyone is going to back whoever they want to back, with the Iranians and the Russians backing the regime, and the Turks and the Arabs betting on their guys in the opposition," Mr. Tabler said. "There is too much strategically at stake in Syria."

So far, Syria's rebel fighters appear to have obtained the majority of arms from inside Syria, or from gray arms markets in surrounding countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, according to analysts and officials. A major rise in arms shipments to Syria's rebels could set the conflict on an unpredictable course.

The Free Syrian Army is an army in name only. It is mostly a hodgepodge of local fighting groups with no clear chain of command, meaning it could prove difficult to rein in if Mr. Assad is driven from power, these people say. It also makes it difficult to pin down who should receive any arms.

"Clearly this force is not yet organized enough, or have any identifiable leadership that can easily be accessed by foreign powers," said Ayham Kamel, a Syria analyst at the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy. "It's just not clear how, or who you would want to support at this point. I don't think anyone has a clear picture in Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar, on how to do this in a clear and strategic manner."

The best short-term hope for bringing resolution to the conflict may still lie with the Russians, who are dispatching Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Damascus on Tuesday to meet with Mr. Assad.

Western officials say they don't know what message Mr. Lavrov will relay to Mr. Assad, but note that Russia's veto has handed it a diplomatic beating in recent days that could cost it lucrative business contracts in Qatar and other Gulf countries.

Russia has strong economic and military ties to Syria, and is Moscow's last Middle East ally. The Russian refusal to budge has played well with supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cast it as a refusal to bend to Western pressure or sell out friends.

Russian diplomats have made scant efforts to meet with Syrian opposition figures and Moscow seems to accept Damascus' portrayal of the opposition as a group of armed criminal gangs, according to a Western official familiar with the Russian thinking.

Moscow, meanwhile, also harbors deep concerns about Islamists in the Syrian rebel ranks drawn from their experience fighting Islamist militants in the Caucasus, this official said. Russia and China both also likely fear the U.N. vote could set a precedent for U.N. and international intervention in their own internal disputes.

The official said that, despite the veto, Russia does appear to be growing impatient with Mr. Assad, and expressed hope that Moscow may be prepared to push its own transition plan during Mr. Lavrov's visit on Tuesday.

China's vote, meanwhile, appeared to find supporters and detractors in roughly equal numbers on China's popular Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo, where "Syria" was among the top 10 most-searched terms late Sunday night.

In an unscientific user-generated poll that had attracted roughly 2,000 votes by Sunday night, 47% said they supported China and Russia vetoing the resolution while 44% said they opposed it. The rest where undecided.

Among those who supported the vote, many expressed satisfaction that China had decided to stand up to the rest of the Security Council rather than simply abstain from voting.

—Joe Parkinson in Istanbul, Bill Spindle in Dubai, Jay Solomon in Washington, Greg White in Moscow and Josh Chin in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Charles Levinson at

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