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

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 6, 2012 

CAIRO — The United States scrambled Monday to salvage an Arab peace initiative aimed at halting Syria's descent into all-out civil war, closing the U.S. Embassy in Damascus and deliberating with European and Arab allies on other measures aimed at forcing President Bashar Assad to surrender power.

Amid reports of renewed regime shelling of the city of Homs, 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 declared. "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 stood firm in ruling out military intervention, while 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 requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about alliance deliberations.

President Barack Obama said a negotiated settlement was still possible, saying in an interview with NBC that Assad's departure wasn't "a matter of if (but) a matter of when."

But with civilian casualties rising, Syrian oppositionists increasingly were resting their hopes with the Free Syrian Army, a loose amalgam 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," declared 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 devolve into a civil war between diverse religious and ethnic communities that could bleed across 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," warned Andrew Tabler, an expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The State Department waited to announce the embassy closing until the U.S. 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 ties, 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 explained.

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 for consultations.

The Obama administration provided no details of other measures it's mulling to intensify the Assad regime's isolation and choke off its access to funds 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 a raft of 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 supplies from Russia, which maintains its only foreign military base in Syria's port of Tartus.

Moving to halt Russian arms sales could worsen relations with the Kremlin, whose cooperation is vital to U.S. efforts to halt Iran's suspected nuclear arms program. They've already been strained by Moscow's U.N. veto Saturday, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced as a "travesty."

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

The United States 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'd open negotiations with opposition groups on a transition to democracy.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, speaking to Parliament, outlined other measures, including stepped-up 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 fresh 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 provide 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 entire 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 footage nonstop.

In December, the U.N. said Assad's forces had killed more than 5,000 people since the uprising began. It stopped its tallying recently because the violence and government restrictions make it nearly impossible to record the casualties with accuracy. 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 growing impatient with the bloodshed and the apparent helplessness of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, to stop it. Their hopes now are 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.

(Landay reported from Washington. Nancy A. Youssef and Lesley Clark in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Omnia Al Desoukie in Cairo contributed to this article.)

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