Pressure mounted on Russia to back stronger action against its ally Syria after President Bashar al-Assad failed to meet a United Nations cease-fire deadline.
“The Russians have continuously said they want to avoid civil war, they want to avoid a regional conflict,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “But their refusal to join with us in some sort of constructive action is keeping Assad in power, well armed, able to ignore the demands of his own people, of his region and the world.”
Russia has wielded its veto power on the Council, the UN’s decision-making body, to protect Syria from efforts by Western powers and their Arab allies to consider sanctions against Assad’s regime and call on him to step aside. That stance may become more difficult to maintain after Russia used its influence to get Assad to agree to a troop pullout by yesterday, a pledge he didn’t keep.
Clinton will meet with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Washington at a gathering of Group of Eight foreign ministers. She said she expected “a very rough couple of days in trying to determine whether we go to the Security Council seeking action knowing that Russia is still not on board.”
The result would be to continue “to require them to have to either veto or abstain and see what we can try to bring about, because we’re not going to give up,” Clinton said. “we’re going to keep pushing for both humanitarian and strategic reasons.”
Clinton’s address to the Naval Academy focused on the need for U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region.
A Major Test
Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation in New York, said the situation has “now become a major test of Russia’s credibility as broker.”
“They have gone out on a limb for this government and they cannot be made to look like fools,” Laurenti said in a telephone interview.
The violence in Syria, now in its second year, has left more than 9,000 people dead by UN estimates. Traditional diplomacy has led to impasse in a conflict that is evolving into civil war and entangling Syria’s neighbors with shootings across the border in Lebanon and Turkey.
Clinton and Lavrov have clashed repeatedly on how to tackle the crisis, most recently at a March 12 meeting at the UN in New York, when Lavrov said “ultimatums would not work.”
Assad Not Complying
Clinton told reporters yesterday that Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria, “has made clear that Assad is not complying” and “I will be particularly raising this with Foreign Minister Lavrov.”
Russia must be prepared to follow its words with actions, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who holds the presidency of the Security Council, said yesterday.
“The logical next step” would be to increase pressure on the Assad regime through collective action, she told reporters. The U.S. views Assad’s failure to comply as “outrageous but by no means unexpected,” she said.
Lavrov, a former UN ambassador, held talks yesterday in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Al-Muallem, and told him the Assad government needs to be “more active” in complying with conditions of the accord brokered by Annan, a former UN secretary-general.
“We demand from our Syrian colleagues to rigorously implement the Annan plan,” Lavrov said. Muallem said the authorities had started a troop pullback from some areas.
Muallem said Syria wanted assurances from Annan about the opposition’s implementation of his plan, denying that his country had demanded written pledges from Assad opponents or regional countries supporting them.
Russia can benefit if it succeeds in pressuring Assad to compromise in a manner that would keep its ally in power while assuaging international demands for action.
The Annan plan called for Assad’s forces to stop firing heavy weapons and begin withdrawing from populated areas by yesterday. The armed opposition was supposed to respond by laying down its weapons to accomplish a cease-fire by 6 a.m. Damascus time on April 12.
Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said 1,000 people have been killed by government forces in the past eight days. Assad had originally agreed to withdraw troops from populated areas on April 2.
In a letter to the Security Council, Annan said he was “gravely concerned” about the course of events, asking the Council to “register its deep concern” at Assad’s failure to meet his commitments to help stop the bloodshed.
“Despite these assurances from the Syrian Government, credible reports indicate that during that same period, the Syrian armed forces have conducted rolling military operations in population centers, characterized by troop movements into towns supported by artillery fire,” Annan said.
“In the last five days it has become clear” that the Syrian government hasn’t abided by the agreed terms, he said. “While some troops and heavy weapons have been withdrawn from some localities, this appears to be often limited to a repositioning of heavy weapons that keeps cities within firing range.”
The rate of Syrian refugees flowing into Turkey has risen to an average of 707 a day in the past nine days, Annan said in the letter. That compares with an average of 96 a day from Dec. 15 to March 15.
Weighing Next Steps
Western powers said they are weighing their next steps at the Security Council, which alone has the power to impose sanctions and binding resolutions.
Western powers are “confused and ambivalent,” having exhausted their diplomatic and economic leverage, fearful of the future and tiptoeing around the question of military options, according to a report published yesterday by the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels.
While Russia is in a strong position to influence Syria, it also is vulnerable because a failure to stop the violence will reflect badly on Moscow, according to Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst at IHS Global Insight in London.
At stake for Russia are economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, where its influence has waned since the collapse of communism. Moscow is invested in the survival of Assad, selling him weapons during the uprising. Its only military base outside the former Soviet Union is a naval maintenance and supply center in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.
“Russia realizes the prospects for Assad’s regime are bleak and perhaps change of power is unavoidable, but it would like to see this process drawn out,” Gevorgyan said in an e- mail. “Moscow will try to cultivate better relations with the Syrian opposition to cultivate that position of a power broker and try and keep some of its influence over Syria should Assad leave.”