Thousands demonstrated in Syria on March 15, 2012 in support of the government of Bashar al-Assad. The gathering was designed to mark the first anniversary of the western-backed rebellion inside the country., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Allies Cite 'Last Hope' for Peace in Syria
LAURIA at the United Nations and INTI LANDAURO in Paris
Leaders of the U.S., France and their allies called for tough international moves against President Bashar al-Assad's regime if it fails to abide by a United Nations plan to halt violence in the country, characterizing Kofi Annan's cease-fire plan as Syria's last chance for peace.
"Even though fragile, the Annan plan represents a last hope, and we are committed to do everything to make it successful," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said Thursday in Paris during a summit of the Friends of the Syrian People. "If that's not the case, we will make the U.N. Security Council and the international community examine other options to end this tragedy."
Mr. Juppé was joined by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in proposing stiff penalties, including international sanctions, if President Assad's regime doesn't comply with the plan in full. "We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter Seven sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo," Mrs. Clinton said in a statement.
Russia and China have blocked past Security Council efforts to condemn Syria.
Mrs. Clinton also said that Turkey, following recent crossborder shelling from Syria, is considering invoking a North Atlantic Treaty Organization article that triggers consultations when a member's territorial integrity or security is threatened.
Mrs. Clinton called for increasing support for the Syrian opposition but didn't call for military intervention. In Washington, top military officials said that while they would be able to intervene militarily, the bar for such an approach is high and the necessary conditions are far from being met.
.The statements out of Paris appeared to lend muscle to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's bid to station hundreds of unarmed observers in the country. He recommended that the Security Council authorize 300 U.N. cease-fire observers to Syria for three months, even though he said Damascus remains in violation of the U.N.'s peace plan and a cease-fire that was to have gone into effect April 12.
"Approximately 230,000 people, if not more, have been displaced," Mr. Ban said. "An estimated one million people are in need. Despite assurances from the government, there has been no meaningful progress on the ground. This is unacceptable."
Nonetheless, violence has tailed off in the past week, which Mr. Ban appeared to be using as his opening. "Without underestimating the serious challenges ahead, an opportunity for progress may now exist, on which we need to build," he wrote in a letter to the council late Wednesday in New York.
The U.N. Security Council, which had already approved an advance team of eight observers who are now in the country, could decide as soon as next week to deploy the larger contingent.
The adoption of such a mission appeared far from certain, though, as the U.S. cast doubt on the Assad government's willingness to give monitors unhindered access to the areas of worst violence. The international community and the Syrian government also remained at odds on several basic ground rules for the mission.
The advance team is monitoring a cease-fire that was to have gone into effect last week, to stanch 13 months of escalating conflict that by various estimates have claimed more than 9,000 to 11,000 lives.
The Security Council has outlined conditions for a broader mission including allowing the unarmed observers freedom of movement and the ability to interview Syrians without interference. The U.N. said Thursday it and Damascus had reached a preliminary protocol on the mission.
But Syria said Wednesday it would agree to accept 250 observers. Mr. Ban, by contrast, has proposed a force of 300 people. France is proposing strengthening the observer mission further, sending 300 to 400.
Syria has also called for the monitors to be drawn from what it considers friendly countries, including Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Mr. Ban countered Thursday that the composition of the deployment was ultimately up to the U.N. "There should be no preconditions for nationalities," he told reporters in New York.
Mr. Ban also said there was no agreement on whether the observers could use aircraft to patrol vast stretches where violent clashes have occurred between the armed opposition and the government.
"We need effective means of mobility and the Syrian government should be responsible for providing this," Mr. Ban said. "If not, we are willing to provide our own means of [air] transport."
He said discussions on this continue though the Syrian ambassador assured him on Thursday that Damascus would provide the observer with helicopters and planes.
Inside Syria, activists said Thursday that regime forces had taken control of the southern town of Busra al-Harir, which regime forces have been attacking for about a month, the Associated Press cited the Local Coordination Committees activist group as saying.
Members of the U.N.'s advance team visited the southern province of Deraa, the AP reported. It cited an activist as saying that antiregime protesters gathered around the observers in the village of Hirak, chanting antiregime slogans. When the observers left, security forces began shooting to disperse demonstrators, wounding at least three, the activist told the AP.
In Washington, top Defense Department officials said they are considering additional options for the violence in Syria and would be able to intervene militarily. But doing so would require international agreement and a more unified internal opposition, both conditions that don't exist, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee.
He said it was a consensus at the U.N. that had led to NATO action in Libya. "No such consensus currently exists regarding Syria," Mr. Panetta said, adding that outside military intervention could make the situation "even worse and place even more innocent civilians at risk."
On the subject of any NATO intervention based on Turkey's complaints, Mr. Panetta noted that NATO's Article 5 had been invoked only once in the organization's existence, after Sept. 11, 2001. It would be "a stretch" to apply it to the Syria-Turkey situation, he said.
The U.S. on Thursday also demanded that Syria allow the U.N.'s advance team of observers to immediately visit Homs, the scene of the uprising's worst violence.
"The advance team must be allowed to go to places like Homs today," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told reporters. "The government must stop its shelling and pull back. The government could do all these things today."
Ms. Rice characterized the demand for a Homs visit as a test of the Syrian government's commitment to the U.N. monitor's mission and the cease-fire itself. Such a position raises the possibility that the U.S. could block adoption of the full monitoring team should Syria fail to follow through. She didn't say the U.S. would do so, however, saying only that it is studying its options.
"The council can authorize the full mission tomorrow," she said. "But if they can't visit the hotspots...they won't be effective."
Russia, however, would vote in favor of sending the 300 monitors, despite the outstanding issues, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., told reporters.
Mr. Churkin also said Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar had been appointed as the negotiator with the opposition for a political settlement, a key part of Mr. Annan's six-point peace plan.
In Paris, where top diplomats from 15 nations including the U.K. and Saudi Arabia joined in discussing Syria, Mr. Juppé said Syria's allies were damaging the prospects of the fragile U.N. peace plan, and that France and its allies would step up pressure on countries providing aid and weapons to the regime to stop.
"They sabotage the Annan plan and encourage Bashar al-Assad to intensify repression," Mr. Juppe told his fellow ministers in an address before the summit.
The top French diplomat blamed Mr. Assad and his regime for the failure of the U.N. plan so far, and said the Syrian opposition has met its part of the plan.
"The [opposition] groups on the ground, whose coordination is made very difficult by repression, have respected the cease-fire despite provocations from the Syrian authorities," he said. "We are running out of time. Observers must be quickly deployed and able to act with no restrictions."
Write to Joe Lauria at email@example.com and Inti Landauro at firstname.lastname@example.org