- Associated Press - Thursday, April 19, 2012

BRUSSELS (AP) — Despite oft-repeated U.S. demands that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside, the Obama administration’s policy now reflects a consensus that Assad has a firm hold on power and that nothing short of an outside military strike will dislodge him quickly.

With rebel forces poorly armed and disorganized, efforts to pay them by Arab Gulf states failing, and sectarian divisions looming in Syria, the U.S. and its allies seem prepared to leave Assad where he is. Even if he could be ousted, the near future in Syria would involve civil war among ethnic groups now under Assad’s boot, or a slow and bloody war with rebels or proxy fighters armed from the outside.

The U.S. has edged toward supplying the rebels with communications gear and other nonlethal aid but has ruled out either a military assault or a supply of heavy weaponry for rebel forces.

“We are at a crucial turning point,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

Either a United Nations-brokered cease-fire takes hold “or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered,” Clinton said.

But even as she suggests further action, as she has many times before, Clinton is not expected to announce a shift in the U.S. stance during a diplomatic huddle on Syria in Paris on Thursday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said late Wednesday he believes there is an opportunity for progress in Syria and recommended the Security Council approve a 300-strong U.N. observer mission.

In a letter obtained by the Associated Press, Ban told the council he will consider developments on the ground, including consolidation of the cease-fire, before deciding on when to deploy the expanded mission, which is larger than the 250 observers initially envisioned. The Security Council was scheduled to discuss Ban’s letter and recommendations at a closed meeting Thursday morning.

The United States backs the cease-fire between Assad’s forces and rebels, but the deal also represents recognition that Assad remains in control of the armed forces and holds the power to suspend attacks on civilians and rebels.

The week-old cease-fire was supposed to allow greater humanitarian and other relief to enter the country.

Syria has violated key provisions. Tanks, troops and widely feared plainclothes security agents continue to patrol the streets to deter anti-government protests, while the regime resumed its assault on rebellious Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, over the weekend after only a brief lull.

U.S. officials regularly say Assad is no longer a legitimate leader, but they hold no direct leverage to make him leave, or even make him listen to international condemnation.

“Assad must step down,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week. “I mean, we continue to take that position. At the same time, I think, we believe that we have to continue to work with the international community to keep putting pressure on Assad.”

Even relatively harsh new sanctions on Syria are a tacit admission that Assad isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And the rebels are no closer to ridding the country of him despite 13 months of fighting and 9,000 mostly civilian deaths.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Wednesday that his country was observing the cease-fire plan laid out by special envoy Kofi Annan.

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