Assad May Lose Russia, China; McCain Calls for Airstrikes

Syria’s two most powerful backers, Russia and China, have started to edge away from their defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while U.S. Senator John McCain called for U.S.-led airstrikes to stop his “savagery.”

Russia and China decried the violence in Syria and dispatched diplomats to the region this week, raising the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough that could end their opposition to United Nations Security Council action critical of the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, McCain said diplomacy has failed to stop Assad’s military assault against civilians and urged the U.S. to create civilian safe havens by leading airstrikes against Syrian forces and air defenses.

“Despite a year’s worth of diplomacy backed by sanctions, Assad and his top lieutenants show no signs of giving up and taking the path into foreign exile,” the Arizona Republican said in remarks to the Senate yesterday.

“In addition to the moral and humanitarian interests at stake in Syria, what is just as compelling, if not more so, are the strategic and geopolitical interests,” said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The United States has a clear national security interest in stopping the violence in Syria and forcing Assad to leave power.”

The Obama administration has opposed sending arms or undertaking a more extensive military intervention, mindful of the risks of fueling a civil war. Several Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have said they favor providing arms to support the Syrian opposition.

Syrian Clashes

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has signaled the possibility of its own shift, opening to door to options beyond diplomacy and economic sanctions.

Speaking of Assad on Feb. 27, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “we don’t take anything off the table and that, if he doesn’t heed the will of his own people and the increasingly loud and strong voice of the international community, we may have to consider additional measures.” The administration hasn’t shown interest in direct military action, such as the airpower deployed over Libya to protect civilians and aid rebels fighting to topple the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

McCain made his call for military intervention as Syrian troops clashed with army defectors in the southern Daraa region and tanks and military vehicles massed outside Yabroud, a Damascus suburb, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said by telephone.

Russian Opposition

The conflict has claimed more than 7,500 lives, according to the UN. The U.S. is drafting a new resolution after Russia and China vetoed Security Council measures in October and February. Russia opposes the U.S. proposal because it’s a “slightly modified version” of the draft that was vetoed last month, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in a posting on his Twitter Inc. account.

An explosion struck an oil pipeline, with opposition groups and the government blaming each other for the blast. In the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, where government forces seized control after a monthlong bombardment and siege, troops are clearing out “terrorist elements,” the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said.

Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy of the UN and the Arab League, will go to Syria March 10, after stopping in Cairo to meet with the league’s secretary-general, both organizations said in an e-mailed statement from Geneva today.

“The purpose of his first visit is to seek an urgent end to all violence and human-rights violations, and to initiate the effort to promote a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis,” according to the statement.

‘Against Popular Sentiment’

Russia and China are shifting on Syria because they haven’t been “particularly happy with the position they’ve adopted in the region,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. Their UN vetoes scuttled a resolution authored by the Arab League calling for Assad to hand power to a deputy.

“They’re lined up against popular sentiment in the Arab world,” Danin said. “That’s just not a great place to be. They have a lot of reasons to reconsider their position.”

In a March 4 six-point statement about a political resolution on the “Syria issue,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry pointedly distanced itself from the Assad government, noting the regime’s violence against civilians. China called itself a “friend of the Arab people,” and urged an end to “all acts of violence, particularly violence against innocent civilians.”

Rejects Regime Change

The ministry announced a two-day visit to Damascus, starting today by China’s former ambassador to Syria to discuss its statement.

China said it continues to reject “regime change” and called on the international community to “earnestly respect the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria.” Amid the Arab League’s sanctions against the government in Damascus, the statement also emphasizes China’s belief that the use or threat of sanctions “does not help to resolve this issue appropriately.”

China called for political dialogue and a leading UN role in coordinating humanitarian aid. Both of those elements are part of the agreement settled on at the first so-called Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis Feb. 24, a gathering which neither China nor Russia attended.

Russian Diplomacy

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will conduct his own diplomacy March 10, traveling to Cairo to meet with the Arab League, which authored the resolution calling for Assad to step down. Yesterday, Lavrov urged Assad to end the bloodshed.

Nuland said yesterday the U.S. hoped that, with Russia’s elections now over, it might be more supportive of the stance the U.S. and its allies have taken.

“There was some sense that senior leadership in Russia might have been preoccupied in the week or two before the election and not have had the same kind of attention to pay to Syria that we have had, and that now they might,” Nuland told reporters.

McCain, in his speech on the Senate floor, emphasized that time is short. “Homs is lost for now, but Idlib and Hama and Qusayr and Daraa and other cities in Syria could still be saved,” he said. “But time is running out. Assad’s forces are on the march.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization took action to “save Kosovo in 1999 without formal UN authorization,” McCain said. Together or in some combination, the Arab League, NATO, or a leading coalition within the Friends of Syria group, should be able to provide a similar mandate for military measures against Syria today, he said. At this stage, military assistance to the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group, “alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott in Washington at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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