Clinton Sees NATO Role in Pressuring Syria’s Assad Regime

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State. Photographer: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Turkey may seek NATO’s support in dealing with Syria as the UN Security Council made clear the Assad regime’s truce violations won’t prevent the deployment of as many as 300 cease-fire observers.

Turkey may invoke the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s charter provision triggering consultations if a member’s security is threatened, Clinton said yesterday in Paris following a meeting of the alliance in Brussels. While there is little sentiment for military intervention to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, involving NATO would add a new lever of pressure on the Damascus government.

“We have to keep Assad off-balance by leaving options on the table,” Clinton said at the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Paris. Turkey has already discussed with NATO “the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking Article 4” of the NATO charter.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and his special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, asked the UN Security Council yesterday to authorize an expanded mission of unarmed military observers, even as both acknowledged Assad has failed to abide by the terms of the April 12 cease-fire.

“The past few days, in particular, have brought reports of renewed and escalating violence, including the shelling of civilian areas, grave abuses by Government forces and attacks by armed groups,” Ban told reporters in New York.

Few Options

Security Council members have broadly agreed on the need to deploy the force to Syria and are unlikely to be deterred by continuing violence, according to two UN diplomats. For the world body, it provides a means to maintain diplomatic pressure given the opposition by Russia and China to further UN sanctions.

“It ticks a box at a time there are few other options,” Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center on International Cooperation, said in a telephone interview. “Sometimes a diplomatic initiative can gain a momentum of its own and having a mission there has become a goal in itself.”

Violence in Syria has raged for 13 months, killed more than 9,000 people.

“We’re in a dilemma,” Clinton said in Paris. “We think it’s important to get independent sources of observation and reporting on the ground, but we do not want to create a situation where those who are sent in to do this mission themselves are subjected to violence.”

Russia Supports Monitors

Tools such as an international arms embargo or sanctions have been blocked by Russia, Syria’s closest ally on the Security Council. Russia will support the Syria monitoring mission, Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said yesterday in New York.

Western powers have said they don’t intend to repeat last year’s Libya campaign, where the UN authorized a NATO-enforced no-fly zone. In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that the U.S. would need “a clear legal basis” and broad regional and international support to act militarily.

Clinton called for tougher Security Council measures, including travel restrictions on regime members, further financial sanctions, and an arms embargo, even as she acknowledged probable Russian opposition.

“I’m well aware at this point such an effort is still likely to be vetoed, but we need to look for a way to keep pressing forward,” Clinton said.

‘Last Chance’

The next international meeting to plan further sanctions will take place in Washington, probably in mid-May, Clinton said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who headed the Syria meeting yesterday, said the Annan plan is the “last chance” to avoid civil war. If it fails, the Security Council will have to “consider other options,” he said.

Clinton said she met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the day in Brussels. “He was, as usual, very intent upon laying responsibility on all sides and in particular on the opposition, but he also has recognized that we are not in a static situation, but a deteriorating one,” Clinton said.

Clinton called on those gathered in Paris to increase support to the opposition. The U.S., she said, is considering whether to create with Turkey an “assistance hub” on its border with Syria to help “coordinate the collection and distribution of assistance to opposition groups inside Syria.”

Regional ‘Spillover’

At the UN, the Security Council was briefed yesterday by two deputies to Annan, the architect of a six-point peace plan agreed to by Assad. The officials were Jean-Marie Guehenno, former UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, and Edmond Mulet, UN assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping.

They urged the 15-member body to agree to the deployment of more observers because that could alter the political dynamics on the ground, according to the two diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the briefing wasn’t public.

Syria and the UN agreed yesterday on a set of rules for the unarmed monitors, although use of aircraft was left to be taken up “at a later date.” The government agreed to allow unhindered access for UN personnel and to guarantee their safety, according to the memorandum of understanding.

Inspired by revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Libya, the Syrian conflict has embroiled neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, both struggling to cope with an influx of refugees.

“Spillover into neighboring countries is an increasing concern,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a testimony at the House committee hearing yesterday.

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