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Solution on Syria Remains Elusive for White House

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, dismayed by the escalating violence in Syria and the blocking of tougher action against the Syrian government by Russia and China over the weekend, vowed Sunday to “redouble efforts” to push President Bashar al-Assad out of power.

Doing so without the force of a United Nations Security Council resolution, though, could mean having to look the other way as other countries arm the Syrian opposition, providing a recipe for all-out civil war, some Syria experts said.

On Sunday, the Obama administration sought to get beyond the veto by Russia and China a day earlier of a Security Council resolution backing an Arab League plan for a political settlement in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the veto a “travesty.”

Mrs. Clinton, in remarks on Sunday in Sofia, Bulgaria, placed the blame for the deteriorating situation squarely on Russia and China. “Those countries that refuse to support the Arab League plan bear full responsibility for protecting the brutal regime in Damascus,” Mrs. Clinton said. “And it is tragic that after all the work that the Security Council did, they had a 13-2 vote.”

But even as Mrs. Clinton and other administration officials promised to increase their efforts to stop the Syrian government from getting additional weapons and cracking down on protesters, some Syria experts suggested that the United States may have to go further. At the very least, it may have to give tacit approval to the arming of the Syrian opposition.

Such a move could lead to civil war. But it could also set the stage for a potential proxy war in a volatile region, as the United States and its allies in Europe and the gulf back the Syrian opposition against Mr. Assad, whose government is backed by Iran and Russia.

“There’s a little bit of Afghanistan here,” said Robert Malley, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, referring to the 1980s fight of the American-backed mujahedeen fighters who resisted the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“The U.S. will continue ratcheting up pressure on Assad, but these are not the kinds of things that will change the behavior of the Syrian regime,” Mr. Malley said. “The real question will come as violence intensifies. There’ll be pressure to do something else.”

Obama administration officials have been adamant thus far that the United States will not intervene militarily in Syria. “Look, don’t expect another Libya,” one administration official said Sunday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But, he added: “There is a growing danger that if the slaughter which Assad has been engaging in continues, others might step forward to aid the opposition.” Those others, he and Middle East experts say, include Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Mrs. Clinton, calling the Security Council “neutered,” said the United States would work with its allies on new sanctions against Syria that will seek to end sources of money for the government, as well as arms shipments that have allowed Mr. Assad to so forcefully batter protesters. She insisted that the United States would “support the opposition’s peaceful political plans for change.”

But Mrs. Clinton also indicated that she was bracing now for a civil war. “Many Syrians, under attack from their own government, are moving to defend themselves, which is to be expected,” she said.

Ever since democracy protests spread to Syria 11 months ago, the Obama administration has taken pains not to look as if the United States is trying to orchestrate the outcome in Syria, for fear that the image of American intervention might do the Syrian opposition more harm than good. In particular, administration officials said that they did not want to give the Iranian government — which has a huge stake in the Syrian government and is Mr. Assad’s biggest supporter — an excuse to intervene.

But Mr. Assad’s crackdown, in particular the deadly attack over the weekend in Homs, and the rapidly escalating violence in the country appear to have erased the last of the administration’s efforts to not look heavy-handed.

President Obama issued an angry statement on Friday comparing Mr. Assad to his father, Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades. “Thirty years after his father massacred tens of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children in Hama, Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated a similar disdain for human life and dignity,” Mr. Obama said.

He said, “We owe it to the victims of Hama and Homs to learn one lesson: that cruelty must be confronted for the sake of justice and human dignity.” He added that “the suffering citizens of Syria must know: we are with you, and the Assad regime must come to an end.”

Administration officials said that they did not expect Mr. Assad to ride out the storm and remain in power. But they acknowledged that many factors make his exit more difficult than the departures of two other presidents, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.

At the heart of the worry about Syria is Iran. While the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen all fell, the eruptions that led to those outcomes were largely internal, with their most significant ramifications limited to the examples they set in the Arab world.

A collapse in Syria, by contrast, could lead to an external explosion that would affect Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and even Iraq, foreign policy experts say, particularly if it dissolves into an Iraq-style civil war. But just as important, with Iran and Hezbollah backing the Syrian government, the United States and the West — already battling to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as the drumbeat of a possible Israeli military strike in Iran grows louder — must calculate how interference in Syria could change the game on Iran.

Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting.


Published: February 5, 2012


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