Tuesday, February 18, 2014

US Attacks Russia Over Its Defense of Syrian Sovereignty

U.S. Scolds Russia as It Weighs Options on Syrian War

By MICHAEL R. GORDON, DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITTFEB. 17, 2014
New York Times

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday sharpened the Obama administration’s mounting criticism of Russia’s role in the escalating violence in Syria, asserting that the Kremlin was undermining the prospects of a negotiated solution by “contributing so many more weapons” and political support to President Bashar al-Assad.

“They’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem,” Mr. Kerry said in Jakarta, Indonesia, before he flew here to confer with top officials of the United Arab Emirates, a gulf state that has been a strong supporter of the Syrian opposition.

Mr. Kerry’s tough criticism underscored the erosion of the Russian-American partnership in Syria, and raised questions about the viability of the United States’ diplomatic strategy to help resolve the escalating crisis.

President Obama has been deeply reluctant for nearly three years to get the United States directly involved in Syria’s civil war, and pulled back the threat of cruise missile strikes in September after Mr. Assad’s agreement to eliminate his chemical arsenal. While chemicals for making poison gas are leaving the country, behind schedule, Mr. Assad’s conventional attacks on civilians have escalated significantly, and now Mr. Obama is calling for a review of what one senior official called “both old and new options” to bolster opposition forces and ease a desperate humanitarian crisis.

CRISIS IN SYRIA

News, analysis and photos of the conflict that has left more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced.

Administration officials, however, insist that those options do not include directly supplying more sophisticated, heavier armaments to the rebels, who are already receiving some weapons and training under a limited C.I.A. program, or carrying out airstrikes in a civil war that Mr. Obama fears could turn into a prolonged conflict. Instead, the United States is considering paying salaries to some of the rebel forces and providing more transportation and intelligence, American and European officials said.

Mr. Assad’s hold on power has grown over the past year, according to the head of American intelligence. Recognizing that a political settlement is unlikely if he keeps the advantage, administration officials said that Mr. Obama and other Western leaders had dropped their objections to proposals by Saudi Arabia and other countries to funnel more advanced weapons to vetted rebel groups, including portable antiaircraft weapons, often called manpads.

A secret meeting in Washington last week among the intelligence chiefs from almost all of the countries attempting to oust the Assad government included extensive discussion about how to best provide that new lethal aid to rebel groups, the officials said. The gathering of the top intelligence officials from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Britain, France and the United Arab Emirates, and several others from the 11-nation group known as the Friends of Syria, reflected a belief that the diplomatic track has been exhausted unless Mr. Assad sustains significant military setbacks.

Mr. Kerry’s pointed remarks on Russia’s role were striking since it was Mr. Kerry who flew to Moscow in May, and the administration hoped that Russia would encourage the Syrian government to move toward a political settlement without Mr. Assad. After meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Kerry announced that the United States and Russia would co-sponsor renewed peace talks in Geneva.

Those talks have now stalled. In August and September, the United States fleshed out and strengthened a Russian proposal that Syria’s chemical arsenal be dismantled — a process now underway, but behind schedule — suggesting the countries could work together even while backing different sides in the war.

That comity, or at least a temporary alignment of interests, has now been set back. Mr. Obama was sharply critical of Russia in public statements over the past week, first at a news conference with President Fran├žois Hollande of France and then at a meeting in California with King Abdullah II of Jordan. One senior Western official who discussed the issue with Mr. Obama last week said, “I’ve never seen him more frustrated — not only with the Russians, but with the failure of anything his own administration has tried so far.”

“The Russian view is that their guy is winning,” said the official, who has been involved in the talks in Washington, “and they may be right. So we’re back to the question we faced a year ago: How do you change the balance and force the Syrians to negotiate?”

Mr. Kerry said on Monday that the United States and its allies were approaching a series of critical decisions on how to respond to the crisis. But even as he insisted that the administration remained committed to peacefully resolving a civil war that has claimed about 140,000 Syrian lives and displaced hundreds of thousands, it is no longer clear if the United States has the influence to broker a settlement or whether the limited steps the White House is now willing to consider would be sufficient to help it regain its lost leverage.

Debate has raged since the start of the civil war over whether Western and Arab nations should provide Syria’s rebels with manpads. Administration officials have in the past sought to limit the flow of the weapons into the Syria conflict, fearing they could be smuggled away and later used by terrorists against civilian airliners. However, providing selected rebel fighters with surface-to-air missiles is a logical response to the persistent barrel-bomb attacks of Syrian cities like Aleppo and Homs.

Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior American intelligence official, said the Assad government was using Russian-supplied Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters to carry out the barrel-bomb attack in Homs. Russia, he said, is most likely providing spare parts such as engines, transmissions and rotors, which may explain Mr. Kerry’s specific reference to how Russian weapons are fueling the war.

The Syrian Opposition, Explained There are believed to be hundreds, if not thousands, of groups fighting in Syria. These opposition groups are fighting the Assad regime, but recently turned on each other with increased ferocity.

A fighter from the Damascus suburbs who fled to Beirut, Lebanon, said one of the reasons he left was that the Army of Islam, the rebel group led by Zahran Alloush, had surface-to-air missiles, which he said were a Syrian Army model taken from antiaircraft bases a year ago. But the Army of Islam, which is supported by Saudi private donors, has declined to share its plentiful arms and its cash with other rebel groups, particularly non-Islamist ones. That has complicated efforts to counter Mr. Assad’s forces around Damascus.

Mr. Obama’s apparent willingness to drop objections to supplying the rebel groups with heavier weapons may simply be an acknowledgment that Saudi Arabia and gulf states that are frustrated with American policy are now prepared to do so anyway, without Washington’s blessing. American officials say they also now have a better sense than they did last year about which groups they can trust to use and secure the weapons.

Mr. Obama has also been influenced by growing fears that Syria is becoming a training ground for a new generation of terrorists and may become even more of a haven until a political settlement is reached. “That’s one big change from a year ago,” a senior American diplomat said. “And it’s beginning to haunt everyone with memories of Afghanistan.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported the likely increase in manpad shipments and rebel salaries on its website Friday night.

But a senior United States official said on Tuesday there had not been a change in policy.

“The administration remains opposed to any provision of Manpads to the Syrian opposition,” the official said.

Mr. Kerry alluded on Monday to the internal administration deliberations about what to do next on Syria on Monday before he conferred here with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates.

“It is important for the world to consider in these next days exactly what steps can now be taken in the face of this intransigence that is creating an even greater human catastrophe by the moment,” Mr. Kerry said at his news conference in Jakarta.

In an administration that has been deeply divided on Syria strategy — the first hints of antigovernment protest erupted in the Damascus markets exactly three years ago Monday — Mr. Kerry has been among those arguing for more overt and covert pressure on Mr. Assad, according to administration officials.

But Mr. Obama has been wary of deep involvement and is adamant that no American forces can be put at risk — a reflection, aides say, of his belief that even if Mr. Assad is overthrown, the country could enter into a civil war from which there is no exit for years.

Mr. Kerry’s remarks on Monday reflected the blunt assessment that Mr. Assad is filibustering in Geneva while seeking a battlefield victory. “The regime stonewalled; they did nothing, except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country,” he said. “And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia.”

Michael R. Gordon reported from Abu Dhabi, and David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Anne Barnard contributed reporting from Beirut.

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