Syria peace prospects look poor as U.S. closes embassy

Added by on February 7, 2012

The United States scrambled Monday to salvage an Arab peace initiative aimed at halting Syria’s descent into all-out civil war, closing its embassy in Damascus and deliberating with European and Arab allies on other measures to force President Bashar Assad to surrender power.

As new shelling of the city of Homs was reported, the diplomatic efforts came two days after Russia and China blocked the U.N. Security Council from endorsing the Arab League plan to have Assad step down as part of a transition to democracy.

“We believe that the right solution in Syria is a political solution,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We’re carefully considering a full range of options. And we’ll work closely with our allies and others to help the people of Syria put an end to this criminal regime.”

There was scant prospect, however, of the mayhem ending soon. Western and Arab powers ruled out military intervention, and Russia and China defended their U.N. vetoes, contending that the Arab plan called for regime change.

“We don’t have any imminent need to do any military planning because there is such a remote chance to be involved based on the current political situation,” said a senior NATO military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about alliance deliberations.

President Barack Obama said a negotiated settlement was still possible. Assad’s departure wasn’t “a matter of if (but) a matter of when,” he said in an NBC interview.

But with civilian casualties rising, the Syrian opposition increasingly staked their hopes with the Free Syrian Army, a loosely organized group of lightly armed civilians and army deserters battling to hold slivers of territory against one of the Middle East’s biggest armies and thugs loyal to the 42-year Assad family dictatorship.

“The only solution is to back the Free Syrian Army,” said Ramy Jarah, an opposition activist who fled to Egypt several months ago.

The longer the conflict rages, however, the greater the threat that it could turn into a civil war between diverse religious and ethnic communities that could spread past Syria’s borders, infecting a region fraught with age-old disputes and new political tensions ignited by last year’s Arab Spring uprisings.

“There is a lot of danger coming out of a destabilized Syria,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The State Department waited to announce the embassy closing until the ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and other staffers left Damascus. Surging violence, including two recent bombings in the capital, “raised serious concerns” that the mission was “not sufficiently protected from armed attack,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

“The deteriorating security situation . . . makes clear once more the dangerous path Assad has chosen and the regime’s inability to fully control Syria,” Nuland said.

At a briefing, Nuland called the measure a suspension _ not a break _ of diplomatic relations, and said U.S. representation would be handled by Poland. Ford and his staff will return to Washington to continue working, including maintaining contacts with the opposition, she said.

The State Department said last month that it was considering closing the embassy because of the violence and because requests to the regime to boost the mission’s security had gone nowhere. Most of the staff had left the country in recent weeks.

In an apparently coordinated move, Britain announced the recall of its ambassador to Syria.

The Obama administration provided no details of other measures it is considering to further isolate the Assad regime isolation and choke off its access to money to pay its forces and replenish its military stocks. Carney declined to say whether the United States would arm the Syrian opposition.

“Assad is running out of money,” Carney said. “And we will work to make sure that he is unable to finance his continued crackdown.”

The United States and the European Union already have imposed economic sanctions on Damascus and are considering additional measures, U.S. and British officials said.

Assad is receiving support from Iran _ reportedly including advisers from the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps _ and arms from Russia, which maintains its only foreign military base in Syria’s port of Tartus.

Moving to halt Russian arms sales could worsen U.S. relations with the Kremlin, whose cooperation is vital to U.S. efforts to stop Iran’s suspected nuclear arms program. Relations already have been strained by Moscow’s U.N. veto Saturday, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said was as a “travesty.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was expected to meet Assad on Tuesday in Damascus.

The U.S. and its allies also are working to recruit Arab and other countries to a “friends of democratic Syria” coalition that would throw its weight behind the Arab League peace plan. It calls for Assad to hand over power to his vice president, who then would open negotiations with opposition groups on a transition to democracy.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking to Parliament, outlined other measures, including increased efforts to unite the fragmented Syrian opposition behind a pledge to support democracy and human rights, and to build international support for war crimes prosecutions against Assad and other Syrian officials.

News of the diplomatic maneuvering was eclipsed, however, by new shelling of Homs, sometimes called the “capital” of the uprising, where activists reported dozens of deaths in a government onslaught over the weekend and into Monday.

The government denied the reports, according to the state news agency SANA, and said “armed terrorist groups” were attacking several neighborhoods in the city.

The regime has severely hindered the travels and independence of visiting reporters, and it’s impossible to verify the origins of the grisly videos of slain or tortured protesters that often are the only glimpse into the human toll of Assad’s crackdown. Over the weekend, the latest gruesome video to go viral purported to show a boy from a besieged district of Homs whose lower jaw had been blow off, allegedly by rocket fire.

The boy was alive and conscious. The image of his shredded face touched a fresh nerve even in the protest-weary Middle East. Arabic-language satellite channels, owned by Assad’s royal Arab Persian Gulf enemies, showed the video nonstop.

In December, the U.N. said Assad’s forces had killed more than 5,000 people since the uprising began. It stopped counting recently because the violence and government restrictions make it nearly impossible to record the casualties accurately. Hague on Monday put the death toll at more than 6,000.

Activists think that a tough, unanimous U.N. condemnation of Assad still might encourage mass defections from the military, the regime’s backbone.

Syrian protesters are becoming impatient with the violence and the apparent inability of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, to stop it. They hope now to build the Free Syrian Army into a real fighting force.

“With all due respect to the Syrian National Council, people can see it’s unable to do anything,” said Jarah, the activist. “They are opposition, but outside the country, which means they have to seek help from the international community, which also can’t do anything.”

Others cautioned against too much optimism over the nascent rebel force. The example of Libya looms large: The ragtag militias that brought down Moammar Gadhafi with NATO support now are turning on one another in a deadly power struggle.