Clinton Warns Russia Stance Pushes Syria Into Civil War

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected Russia’s claim that it’s a stabilizing influence on Syria and said that, by protecting the Assad regime, it’s speeding the country’s slide into civil war. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected Russia’s claim that it’s a stabilizing influence on Syria and said that, by protecting the Assad regime, it’s speeding the country’s slide into civil war.

With the Houla massacre of women and children provoking international revulsion, Clinton’s criticism of Russian policy displayed the tensions between the Obama administration and the Russian government, led by newly elected President Vladimir Putin.

“The Russians keep telling us they want to do everything they can to avoid a civil war because they believe that the violence would be catastrophic,” Clinton said in remarks to students in Denmark yesterday. Noting Russia’s claims to be a stabilizing influence, Clinton said, “I reject that. I think they are, in effect, propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition.”

Clinton’s comments came as Putin is set to discuss Syria in visits today with the leaders of France and Germany, who have expressed views similar to Clinton’s. In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council plans to discuss today the “deteriorating” situation in Syria, including the Houla killings. The council’s special session -- its fourth on Syria -- is being held at the request of Qatar, Turkey, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Denmark and the European Union, which have sided with the Syrian opposition movement.

Russia has protected Syria from censure in the United Nations Security Council, provided the regime with arms and criticized this week’s decision by the U.S. and allies to expel Syrian diplomats after the slaughter of 108 people, the majority women and children, in and around the town of Houla.

Russia Needed

Even as Syria causes growing friction between Moscow and Washington, Clinton and officials in President Barack Obama’s administration said they will be working to persuade Russia to take a more constructive role.

“We could come into greater disagreement because of Syria going forward,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director of a Russian program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, “but I think the U.S. has decided it really can’t solve the problem without Russia.”

While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces last month agreed to a six-point peace plan brokered by UN envoy Kofi Annan and the deployment of 300 UN cease-fire monitors, violence in the 14-month-old conflict has continued, killing more than 10,000, according to UN estimates. Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an activist group, said 50 more died yesterday, according to its website.

Civil War

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed Clinton’s warning yesterday in Istanbul, saying the violence in Houla could lead to a full-scale civil war, according to the Associated Press.

“The massacre of civilians of the sort seen last weekend could plunge Syria into a catastrophic civil war -- a civil war from which the country would never recover,” Ban said. “I demand that the government of Syria act on its commitments under the Annan peace plan.”

The Syrian government unveiled the conclusions of its official inquiry into the Houla killings yesterday, blaming them on “armed terrorist groups.” The state-run SANA newswire said the report found that these groups “liquidated the victims in the process of an attack on the law-enforcement members who hadn’t entered the area where the massacre occurred, adding that most of the bodies are of terrorists who were killed in the clash with the law-enforcement members.”

That report has no credibility in Washington and European capitals, where government officials have blamed the atrocities on gangs of pro-government thugs, known as the shabiha.

‘Appalling Massacre’

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a May 29 report based on witness and survivor accounts that most of the victims in Houla died in their homes and entire families were killed together, shot at close range. The “appalling massacre” began on May 26 and continued through the weekend, it said.

In Denmark, Clinton said she would be speaking to Russian officials in the coming days to “see if we can’t get a way forward.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney gave reporters a glimpse of the argument the U.S. will use. “We simply do not believe it is in Russia’s interests, let alone in Syria’s interests, for the Assad regime to continue to be propped up and therefore to allow it to continue to brutalize its own people,” Carney told reporters yesterday.

Some Obama administration officials have been reluctant to press Putin aggressively on Syria, arguing that Russian support to ensure that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons and for NATO’s northern supply -- and withdrawal -- routes for allied troops in Afghanistan are more important.

Russian Ties

Moreover, said three administration officials involved in Syria policy, it isn’t wise to press for Assad’s ouster with little idea of who or what might replace him. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Russia has deep ties to Syria that are shaping its efforts to protect the Assad regime from international censure or intervention, said Pomeranz of the Wilson Center.

“They’ve had a long-standing relationship with Syria over decades, Syria has been a major weapons customer, it’s the one place in the Middle East where Russia has a port,” Pomeranz, deputy director of the center’s Kennan Institute, which focuses on U.S.-Russia relations, said in an interview. “It’s really Russia’s last strategic asset in the region.”

Further Sanctions

The U.K. is considering further sanctions against Syria, Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said yesterday after a meeting of the National Security Council.

The European Union is not considering military action, Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters yesterday in Brussels. “Military options are not on the table,” he said. “All our actions must be in line with international decisions.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is traveling to Asia for meetings, said he doesn’t envision a U.S. military intervention in Syria without the support of a UN Security Council resolution, the AP reported.

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