- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2012

An international standoff on Syria intensified Monday as the U.S. shuttered its embassy in Damascus and Britain recalled its ambassador amid an increase in violence that many now believe is headed for full-blown civil war.

President Obama asserted that a peaceful resolution to the 11-month-old conflict should and could be negotiated without foreign military intervention.

But U.S. and British moves to sever direct diplomatic ties with Damascus signal a previously unseen eagerness by the two Western powers to take unilateral action in the crisis after expressing outrage at the vetoes by China and Russia on Saturday of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an end to the bloodshed.

In Syria, at least 23 people were killed Monday on the third day of intensified artillery shelling of the restive city of Homs, according to wire reports citing activists and human rights groups close to the violence. The United Nations has estimated that more than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since March.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday condemned the West’s reaction to his country’s veto of the U.N. resolution, telling reporters in Moscow that some comments made by Western officials were “indecent and bordering on hysteria” and “aimed at suppressing what is actually happening.”

The Russian reaction was largely dismissed by U.S. and British officials, who embraced an aggressive tone toward Syrian President Bashar Assad for allowing his military forces to crack down so viciously on protesters.

“We’re going to have to take measures outside the U.N. to strengthen and deepen and broaden the international community pressure on Assad,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

She made the remarks after Mr. Obama opened the day with an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, in which he reiterated that “it is time for Assad to go.”

“This is not going to be a matter of if,” the president said. “It’s going to be a matter of when.”

Some analysts, however, say it may be awhile, given the strength of Syria’s military forces, the willingness of Mr. Assad to use them to crush dissent, and the scattered nature of the armed resistance that opposition groups have begun to show.

With outside pressure having failed to stop the crackdown, the international community is faced with “the hard realization that it’s going to be a war and it’s going to be decided on the battlefield,” said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“That means it’s a long difficult battle,” said Mr. Landis, a Syria analyst. “Because the Syrian army is still quite strong, compared to the opposition.”

“The opposition has been growing stronger and stronger, but it is based on local militias that have been organizing on a very town-by-town basis,” he said. “They’re working on their own time schedules and under their own command, and there isn’t a lot of coordination.”

The lack of cohesion has given the advantage to Syrian forces that have shown no mercy, attacking residential areas and firing shells into a makeshift medical clinic in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where more than 220 people have been killed during recent days.

Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League, issued a statement Monday saying he is “extremely alarmed” that government forces are using heavy weapons on their own citizens.

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