U.S.’s Rice Says Premature to Discuss Syria Aid Corridors

Creating aid corridors in Syria to protect civilians from government troops or considering air attacks on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would be “premature, to say the least,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said yesterday.

Often-raised solutions that entail resorting to the use of force “are presented as if they are simple and without risk and complexity,” Rice said at a luncheon at Bloomberg View. “I think there are real challenges with humanitarian corridors, not least of which is it entails boots on the ground and there is no way around that.”

The 14-month-old conflict between the Assad regime and opposition groups escalated this week, underscoring the failings of the UN’s cease-fire plan and the inability of UN monitors to curb the violence. Not long after reports that regime forces had fired on mourners at a funeral, a roadside bomb yesterday ripped through a convoy of cars ferrying UN monitors. No injuries were reported, according to the UN.

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became the latest advocate for the creation of “safe zones” inside Syria. He told Foreign Policy magazine on May 8 that humanitarian corridors, which would have to be defended with military force, are “a reality and worth the discussion.”

‘Grim’ Precedents

“The history of humanitarian corridors, Bosnia being a recent example, is pretty grim,” Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center on International Cooperation, said in a telephone interview. “The reality is you either have to put so much force in that it’s a de facto invasion or you send a limited force that is inherently at risk.”

Rice, who said she did not discuss the details of his plan with Kerry, gave a harrowing assessment of the direction of the Syrian conflict.

“There is a risk it ends in more violence, which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing, even if it’s a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is,” Rice said.

While skeptical that the six-point plan put forward by Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy, can restore peace, the alternative to it is “certain Syrian, but also regional war.”

Unlike Libya, the U.S. and its allies have “a set of tools that are more limited” to address the escalating violence in Syria, according to Rice, a leading foreign policy voice in the Obama administration. She listed all the ways in which the circumstances in Syria differ from the North African country, where Muammar Qaddafi was toppled in part by a NATO-enforced no-fly zone authorized by the UN.

Air Power

Air power is “something that we have been very concerned about” there is not, as there was in Libya, a “coherent, unified opposition on the ground that controls territory,” she said.

Assad’s opponents are “clusters of local opposition that aren’t coordinating with one another, not coordinating with their external supporters and don’t control any territory,” she said. Moreover, Syrian air defense is “exceedingly sophisticated and dense,” making the situation “wholly different” from Libya or the Balkans.

In 1993, the UN declared the largely Muslim Bosnian city of Srebrenica a safe area, but in July 1995 a force of some 400 Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent Serb forces from massacring more than 8,000 people there. In March 1999, NATO started an air campaign against Serb and Yugoslav targets that ended less than three months later when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accepted peace terms.

‘Fraught, Fragile’

Located in the heart of the Middle East, with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq as neighbors, Syria could “devolve into even worse and more widespread violence that bleeds well beyond the borders of Syria, as it’s beginning to do,” or there will be “some political settlement, however fragile, fraught and imperfect,” Rice said.

The Obama administration has raised its concerns about the increasing violence in a conflict that by UN estimates already has killed more than 9,000 people.

State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said yesterday that the Assad regime’s failure to abide by the cease-fire engineered by Annan has deepened divisions within Syrian society and allowed “spoilers” to infiltrate.

The regime’s unwillingness to stop “firing on its own people” or pull its heavy weapons out of cities “has created a climate where violence by other spoilers is increasingly common,” Nuland said.

Climate of Violence

She said that the opposition groups that the U.S. informally backs, such as the Syrian National Council, have distanced themselves from events such as the double suicide bombing in Damascus.

“This has been the concern all along, that the longer Assad perpetrated violence himself, allowed and fostered a climate of violence, the more folks that don’t have the best interest of Syrians at heart would exploit that,” Nuland said.

Nuland said the monitors’ presence does lead to an ebb in violence. “We see violence stop, we see peaceful demonstrations begin again, we see people able to gather and talk about a transition,” Nuland said. “But whenever monitors have to leave, the violence resumes.”

-- Editors: John Walcott, Terry Atlas

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