Clinton Calls Russia Backing Syria Plan Significant Step

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a news conference at the United Nations offices in Geneva. Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the decision by Russia and China to endorse a United Nations plan for political transition in Syria “a significant step forward,” pushing back against criticism that the accord was too weak.

“There was every reason to believe that we would never get the Russians and the Chinese on board,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio after the talks in Geneva on June 30. During more than six hours of contentious negotiations, Clinton said she “didn’t know that we were going to be able to get anything.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the road map doesn’t imply the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Clinton’s optimism wasn’t shared by Syrian opposition groups, who also saw the outcome as providing leeway for Assad to remain in power.

“Vague language” in the agreement “provides yet another opportunity for the regime’s thugs to play their favorite game in utilizing time in order to stop the popular Syrian revolution and extinguish it with violence and massacres across Syria,” the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist group, said today on its website.

The Syrian National Council, the country’s main opposition group, said in a statement on its Facebook page that “the Geneva declaration lacks a clear mechanism for action and a timetable for implementation and leaves the regime without accountability.”

Government Reaction

Syria’s state-run Baath newspaper said in an editorial today that the Geneva meeting couldn’t produce positive results because it ignored that the Syrian government is “achieving realistic and concrete results” toward change.

Russia and China agreed to back UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s plan to mediate an end to the 16-month conflict by calling on the Syrian regime and opposition to establish a transitional government chosen “by mutual consent.” Russia had dug in against a U.S.-backed draft by Annan that said an accord would “exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”

Clinton said in the interview that there was little difference between the earlier draft and the final document’s “strong language” giving both sides an effective veto over anyone seen as an impediment to peace.

Bloody Hands

“I don’t think you have to be up on current events to know that no member of the opposition is going to have Assad or anyone else with blood on their hands on the transitional body,” Clinton said.

Russia was averse to being seen as endorsing a coalition against Assad, its closest ally in the Middle East, and is concerned about what would follow his ouster, according to Clinton.

Asked if the U.S. would press the UN Security Council to mandate sanctions or allow for military force to oust Assad, Clinton said the first step is “to test whether it is possible to mediate this very bloody, violent conflict.”

She said Annan has been empowered to go to the Syrian capital of Damascus to call for a new governing body with the full backing of the Security Council -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China. The Arab League, the European Union and four regional neighbors -- Turkey, Qatar, Iraq and Kuwait -- also support the plan.

Going to Assad

Annan, a former UN secretary-general, “can now go to the Assad regime and say, ‘We have to start talking about a transition,’ and not be met with, ‘Well, we don’t have to do that because Russia and China don’t agree,’” Clinton said.

If Annan reports back to the so-called Syria Action Group that his mission has failed, “then I think we will have to act, and I believe we will be building the case as to why the Security Council should take such action,” she said.

The conflict in Syria began in March 2011, when the regime violently suppressed peaceful protesters inspired by the anti-authoritarian movements that toppled presidents in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Since then, an armed opposition has emerged, and the conflict has claimed more than 10,000 lives, according to the UN.

Syria has long served as Russia’s foothold in the Middle East, home to its only military base in the region, the strategically located Tartous naval facility. Russia also has been Syria’s leading arms supplier.

Supplying Weapons

Clinton has criticized Russia for continuing to supply the regime with weapons, while Lavrov has denounced U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar for funneling arms to the opposition.

Asked whether the international community would support an arms embargo on both sides, Clinton said that’s “one of the issues that we’re going to have to be discussing further as we go forward.” The U.S. “believes that ending the arming of the Assad government is the first order of business.”

Clinton said she was heartened by the eventual agreement in Geneva, which looked doubtful until the very end, because Annan “now has a stronger hand to play than he did yesterday.”

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