US diplomats exit Syria: Can West prevent descent into more violence?

Western leaders call for a coalition to side with 'Syrian people' against Assad, and UN leader Ban says failed Security Council resolution gives Syria 'no license' to step up attacks on civilians.

John Minchillo/AP
Demonstrators against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hold a massive Syrian flag and chant outside the United Nations a day after fresh violence was reported in the embattled nation, Saturday, in New York.

After Russia and China’s veto of a Security Council resolution Saturday and with violence in Syria flaring, Western leaders are calling for a coalition of the willing to take the side of the “Syrian people” and force Bashar al-Assad from power. And UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a stern warning to Syrian leaders that they are accountable for acts of violence by their security forces against Syrian citizens.

The Western leaders, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Arab League representatives, are not explicitly calling for the kind of force that NATO used to bring down Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, but rather for a ratcheting up of sanctions and increased efforts to deny the Assad regime the arms it is using to attack the Syrian opposition.

But implicit in some of their words is the eventuality of arming opposition forces – or looking the other way while others arms them – a move some regional experts say could set up a dangerous world-powers duel pitting the West and the largely anti-Iran Arab League against Russia and Iran, the Assad regime’s close ally. Such a scenario reinforces the assessment by most analysts that Syria is heading toward more, and perhaps protracted, violence.

Reflecting its sense of swiftly deteriorating conditions in Syria, the State Department announced Monday that US diplomatic activities in the country have been suspended and that the US ambassador, Robert Ford, and all diplomatic personnel have left the country.

The deep divide splitting world leaders over Syria was evident in reactions to the Security Council’s 13-2 vote Saturday. The Russian and Chinese vetoes killed the resolution, despite the lopsided support from the rest of the 15-member body.

Secretary Clinton called the vote a “travesty” and pledged renewed efforts to pressure Assad from the majority of the world favoring action.

Calling for formation of a group of “friends of democratic Syria,” Clinton said Sunday the US would “redouble our efforts outside the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.”

President Sarkozy employed similar words Saturday, saying  France was consulting with its European and Arab partners about creating a “group of friends of the Syrian people” to, among other things, support the Arab League’s plan calling for a transition government in Syria.

“France is not giving up,” Mr. Sarkozy said.

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US officials are not speaking openly of arming the Syrian opposition, but they are moving farther in that direction by suggesting that a civilian population under siege from its own government – including reports of mortar fire on the opposition stronghold of Homs – has a right to defend itself.

“Many Syrians, under attack from their own government, are moving to defend themselves, which is to be expected,” Clinton said while traveling in Bulgaria Sunday.

The US and other Western powers repeated over and over again in the run-up to the Security Council vote that Syria is not Libya, and that there was no chance, as Russia feared, that a resolution would constitute a green light for Western military intervention. But the US and other powers that consider the Assad regime doomed could look the other way, some Middle East experts say, as regional powers like a muscle-flexing Turkey and anti-Assad Arab countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia moved to arm the opposition.

UN officials on Monday suggested the failed resolution in the Security Council had simply fanned the flames of the Syrian conflict by failing to present a united front to the Syrian government. Martin Nesirky, Secretary-General Ban's spokesman, noted that Ban had publicly lamented Saturday’s vote, saying that it “undermines the role of the international community” at a time when it was particularly critical that Syrian authorities “hear a unified voice.”

The Security Council had lost an opportunity “that could help end this crisis,” Ban said in his statement.

Later Monday Ban also harshly criticized the Syrian government's actions, saying in a statement that "the lack of agreement in the Security Council gives no license to the Syrian authorities to step up attacks on the Syrian population. No government can commit such acts against its people without its legitimacy being eroded."

Ban also hinted at the possibility of international judicial action against Syrian leaders, saying that the government is "accountable under international human rights law for all acts of violence perpetrated by its security forces against the civilian population."

Some critics of the Obama administration said that the willingness of the US and other Security Council members to take any recourse to a Libya-style intervention off the table had actually allowed Russia and China to veto the resolution with a sense of having already won what they most wanted.

Robert Satloff, a Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a commentary Monday that Moscow and Beijing had actually reaped a “double victory” from the Security Council process: “Not only did they succeed in blocking a resolution not to their liking,” he says, “they also procured from Washington a commitment not to intervene militarily, which is allegedly what they feared most.”            

The prospect now is for increased violence in Syria, most analysts say. And that, they add, could set the stage for a full-blown civil war that could drag on for years, threatening regional stability in ways the uprisings in other Arab countries did not, experts say, and potentially leaving the US and Russia at even deeper odds with each other than they are today.

Some regional analysts note that the civil war in Syria’s neighbor Lebanon lasted for more than a decade – largely as a proxy war pitting factions backed and armed by different outside powers against each other.

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