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US searches for strategy to halt Syria violence

Despite collapse of diplomatic efforts to end bloodshed, Washington insists it has no plans to invade Syria or arm activists opposed to Al-Assad regime

AP and DPA , Wednesday 8 Feb 2012
The UN Security Council votes on a European-Arab draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan calling for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to give up power in New York February 4, (Photo: Reuters).
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The Obama administration says it is not considering invading Syria or arming its revolutionaries to remove President Bashar Al-Assad from power. Diplomatic efforts at the UN have collapsed. A new, much-touted option of humanitarian assistance for Syria's beleaguered population is a longshot – and would only bandage over the violence instead of stopping it.

For now, Washington is relying primarily on what it has been doing for the past 11 months in a so-far unsuccessful bid to force Al-Assad's government to end its bloody offensive on opponents: sanctions targeting the Syrian regime and isolating it from the world economy.

It is also borrowing somewhat from a strategy used in Libya's civil war, assembling a group of like-minded nations, led by Arab governments, to coordinate an international strategy against Al-Assad. The goal is to pressure the Syrian leader into accepting an Arab-proposed plan to transfer power to his vice president and allow for a transition to democracy.

"We are working with our partners again to ratchet up the pressure, ratchet up the isolation on Al-Assad and his regime," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. "That pressure is having an impact. Ultimately, it needs to result in Assad ceasing the violence, stopping the brutality and allowing for a transition supported by the Syrian people."

Yet it's unclear whether any of the US strategies will produce the optimal result anytime soon.

Al-Assad is receiving political backing from Russia and China, which delivered a double veto over the weekend on a UN resolution seeking his resignation. Sanctions may be crippling the economy, but they have failed to impede security operations that have contributed to a reported death toll of more than 5,400 people since March. And Al-Assad's military remains formidable, even if it is being increasingly challenged by the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The diplomatic and military stalemates are prompting some leading voices in Washington to propose more drastic measures to back Syria's opposition, drawing parallels with America's support for the Libyan rebels who chased Muammar Gaddafi from power last year.

"We should start considering ... arming the opposition. The bloodletting has got to stop," US Senator John McCain said. Sending weapons to Syria's rebels is more difficult than in Libya because they don't control a base as rebels there did in Benghazi, McCain said, but he insisted it should be done.

McCain spoke of coordinating any such action with US ally Turkey, whose foreign minister is meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday. US Senator Joe Lieberman also urged assistance to the Free Syrian Army, which remains a ragtag band of isolated militia without command structure or sufficient means to truly threaten Al-Assad's grip on power.

Arming and supporting Syrian rebels in a proxy effort to oust Al-Assad is a risky proposition. The threat of an all-out civil war might prompt Syria's benefactors, from Russia to Iran, to lend greater military assistance and separate Syria's Sunni-led opposition from minorities that could then cling more tightly to Assad. This type of division would play into Al-Assad's hands, US officials have warned for months, and may only create an even more bloody and prolonged conflict.

Such a conflict also would raise pressure on the US for military involvement in a part of the world where it has just extracted itself from eight years of war in Iraq. It is also still mired in a war in Afghanistan.
The administration rejected the call to arm the rebels.

"We are not considering that step right now," Carney told reporters Tuesday.

"We don't think more arms into Syria is the answer," echoed US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who noted that "some of these proposals that people are brooding about could not be done without foreign military intervention."

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the US State Department's former director of policy planning and an early proponent of NATO intervention in Libya, said the administration should seek to rally Arab countries, Turkey and NATO allies in Europe around the idea of establishing "safe zones" in Syria for civilian protesters and soldiers wishing to defect from the army.

That would demand troops from Syria's Arab neighbours and possibly Turkey to monitor the zones, Slaughter noted in an opinion piece in the Financial Times. The plan would essentially create enclaves in Syria outside the government's control.

It is doubtful Al-Assad would allow a foreign intervention of such a kind in his territory. Russia, which has refused to entertain even sanctions or a weapons ban on the Syrian government, could also respond with hostility.

The administration's energy seems focused right now on the much narrower goal of creating a contact group of countries that share the goal of stopping the violence and seeing Al-Assad out of power. Nuland said Tuesday that would involve tougher sanctions by the US and Syria's neighbours "to squeeze the money that he gets to continue to fuel his war machine."

"We're going to work with countries around the world to call out those who are still sending him weapons, and expose that," Nuland said. The group will look at helping Syria "plot a way forward and also to do what we can about the humanitarian situation."

Still, she recognised the limitations of that strategy. "It's frankly not clear how much we're going to be able to do, but we want to help."

Meanwhile, US envoy to Algeria Henry Ensher revealed Wednesday in Algerian newspaper Al-Khabar that the US was willing to grant immunity to Al-Assad as part of a deal to stop the bloodshed and prevent civil war. 

Ensher said that a deal similar to Yemen's western-backed Gulf initiative, which granted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity in exchange for ceding power to his deputy in advance of early presidential elections, would also be possible in Syria.

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