The U.S. and allies are seeking ways to increase pressure on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad after Russian and Chinese vetoes blocked efforts at the United Nations Security Council to support a political transition.
“We’re going to have to take measures outside the UN to strengthen and deepen and broaden the international community pressure on Assad,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will work with allies to create an international support group for Assad’s opposition and to tighten sanctions against Syria, Nuland said. Other steps include pushing Syria’s trade partners to drop business with the regime and halt weapons shipments in particular, she said. Further action at the UN is also on the table, according to UN diplomats who weren’t authorized to comment publicly.
“There will be a ‘Plan B,’” Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said in a telephone interview. “The question is whether it will work and how effective the strategy will be.”
In Syria, Assad met today with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov.
‘Readiness to Cooperate’
The Syrian leader, who has rejected calls to step down, expressed “readiness to cooperate” on talks with opposition groups, Lavrov said, according to a pool report from the Russian state news service Itar-Tass. Assad asked the Russians to “bring influence to bear on opposition groups which aren’t engaging in dialog yet,” according to the report. There was no indication that Assad is prepared to step aside, handing power to a deputy, as has been called for under the Arab League’s initiative.
Syria has rejected an Arab League plan for Assad to transfer power to a deputy, who would then begin talks with the opposition to form a unity government within two months. On Feb. 4, Russia and China vetoed the Security Council resolution on Syria, citing concern that it called for regime change.
As the U.S. and allies consider options, they can’t draw on methods used to help other Arab Spring countries in transition, such as Libya and Yemen, said Miller, a Mideast peace negotiator in the Clinton administration. The question is how quickly the international community can unite behind a common plan of action, Miller and other analysts said.
Steven Heydemann, the special adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute for Peace, a non-partisan Washington policy group funded by Congress, said delays will result in more violence. “Without a Plan B, it does seem a cascade of dangerous events is more likely to unfold,” he said in a telephone interview.
While Heydemann said expectations of a political settlement to the violence in Syria are now “seriously diminished,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday that the administration believes it’s still possible.
“There remains an opportunity for that to be achieved, for that transition to democracy to take place,” Carney said at a briefing. “We take no options off the table, but our focus is on using our diplomatic, economic and other means to help bring about and usher in a democratic transition.”
The U.S. suspended embassy operations in Damascus and recalled Ambassador Robert Ford and the rest of the American staff, Nuland said. The Polish embassy in Damascus will represent U.S. interests in the country.
Ford “will continue to maintain the contacts that he has broadly across Syrian society, but particularly with Syrian opposition,” Nuland said yesterday. He will work with Clinton’s special adviser, Fred Hof, who acts as a liaison to the Syrian opposition outside the country.
Their goal will be to “make sure that the Syrian people know that we stand with them and their desire for a democratic future,” Nuland said.
The Obama administration doesn’t have the options it had to help Libya and Yemen wrestle with their transitions, Miller said.
In Libya, a UN resolution supported the use of “all necessary measures” to help Libyan rebels prevail over forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.
In Yemen, a plan assembled by the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, pressured President Ali Abdullah Saleh eventually to step down from power.
In Syria, “the military option without a UN resolution seems to me to be almost inconceivable,” said Miller, “and there is no GCC equivalent for Syria.”
Gulf Arab countries decided to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus and expel Syrian ambassadors from their capitals in response to the “massacre” against the country’s people by forces loyal to Assad, the GCC said in an e-mailed statement today.
Nuland said yesterday that a number of foreign ministers are conferring about the formation of a “Friends of a Democratic Syria” group that backs the Arab League plan and wants to provide humanitarian and political support.
Brian Katulis, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, a Washington policy group, said the U.S. needs a coalition.
“Our hand is not that strong until there’s an organized contact group,” Katulis said in a telephone interview. The failure of the UN resolution means “the pressure will be on to do something.” The danger is that “‘you can have the formation of this group, but if they can’t work together to create specific actions, it might not be able to accomplish much,” he said.
The Syrian National Council, the leading opposition umbrella group, wants a U.S.-led coalition to intervene directly.
“We need the U.S. to build a coalition with France, Germany, the U.K. to intervene somehow and stop the massacres and atrocities that are happening right now,” said Ausama Monajed, adviser to SNC President Burhan Ghalioun.
Monajed, speaking on the telephone from London, said the SNC had waited to see if the UN would take action. “Our skepticism grew; there is no hope,” Monajed said of the UN efforts. He said the SNC is consulting with the U.S., Turkey and others about next steps.
“It’s all about assessing now what our options are and how to move forward,” he said.
Arab and European nations haven’t given up on their Arab League peace plan on Syria. They may take the plan to the General Assembly, seeking to override the Security Council and show up Russia in the 193-member body, UN diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks are in a preliminary phase.
Russia and China vetoed the council resolution that backed an Arab League plan to “facilitate” a political transition in Syria. Thirteen of the council’s 15 members voted in favor of the proposal by Western and Arab countries.
“There is a broad international support for the Arab League and we have to see how we can galvanize that,” Peter Wittig, Germany’s ambassador to the UN, told reporters. “We have to examine the possibility to mobilize the GA.”
The General Assembly can overrule the Security Council through a mechanism known as Resolution 377, or Uniting for Peace. It was passed in 1950 during the Korean War to circumvent the Soviet Union blocking action to protect South Korea.
It requires a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly to override the Security Council and its veto-wielding members and can be used when the 15-member decision-making body “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”