- 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.

Syria’s state-run news agency denied the accusation, claiming that civilians and police were being attacked by “armed terrorist groups” operating in the area.

According to a report by Reuters, Syrian state-run news also said gunmen had killed three government soldiers and captured others at a checkpoint near Syria’s border with Turkey.

U.S. and British officials stressed that they are working to build an international alliance beyond the United Nations with the goal of increasing political and economic pressure on Mr. Assad.

Such an alliance likely will include the European Union and some nations of the Arab League, whose efforts during recent weeks served as the impetus for the vetoed U.N. resolution.

It also could include Turkey, which borders Syria to the north and whose president expressed regret Monday over the Chinese and Russian resistance to the resolution.

“Everyone should remember that the era of the Cold War is over,” said Abdullah Gul, who appeared at a joint news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Ankara. “Human rights violations, military power being used against civilians, there is no longer a place for this in the world.”

Mr. Gul stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad’s ouster, but his remarks made headlines as British Foreign Secretary William Hague was telling lawmakers in London that Syria’s government is “doomed” and a “murdering regime.”

“There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally,” said Mr. Hague, asserting that Britain would back the rest of Western Europe should it move to deepen economic sanctions on Syria when the EU’s foreign ministers meet Feb. 27.

Syria’s government and economy already are straining under a variety of sanctions by Western and Middle Eastern powers. Current EU and U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime mainly focus on entities tied to the Syrian military or specific individuals believed to be involved in the crackdown.

Turkey, Syria’s biggest trading partner, has held a raft of economic sanctions against Syria since November. The Arab League also has asked its members to pull their ambassadors from Damascus.

In Washington, Ms. Nuland said that, in addition to pressuring nations who “are trading weapons or otherwise fueling his war machine to stop,” U.S. officials will “work with as many countries as we can to increase both regional sanctions and unilateral national sanctions on the Assad regime.”

The extent to which nations such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, a key military and economic power player in the Persian Gulf, may be willing to join sanctions or other non-U.N.-sponsored action against Syria remains to be seen.

Ms. Nuland said an alliance would grow from the “Friends of Syria” notion, which French President Nicolas Sarkozy presented on Sunday.

Mr. Sarkozy suggested such a group could independently push the Arab League’s plan to urge Mr. Assad to relinquish power.

Ms. Nuland declined to specify who might join such a group, beyond saying that U.S. officials “have a number of European countries interested in this idea [and] a number of Arab countries.”

“I think we need to have a little bit of time to work with partners and allies,” she said, adding that 13 out of the 15 nations on the U.N. Security Council backed the Arab League’s plan.

U.S. officials said Poland has agreed to represent American diplomatic interests in Syria similar to the way the Swiss do for Washington in Iran.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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