US anger as Russia and China veto sanctions plan

Fri, Jul 20, 2012, 01:00

AS FIGHTING in the Syrian capital Damascus continued for a fifth day yesterday, US officials veered between delight that the Assad regime may be verging on collapse and anger with China and especially Russia for thwarting attempts to deal with the crisis through the UN Security Council.

Washington is also anxious at the prospect of mounting chaos and subsequent violence in the wake of the bombing that killed three of President Bashar al-Assad’s closest deputies.

“There is no doubt that Syria’s future will not include Bashar al-Assad,” said Jay Carney, US president Barack Obama’s press secretary. He briefed reporters on an aircraft taking them to Florida, where Mr Obama was to campaign for re-election.

“His days are numbered, and it’s a mistake to prop up the regime as it comes to an end,” said Mr Carney, referring to the Sino-Russian veto of a security council resolution that would have imposed UN sanctions on Damascus.

When Mr Obama spoke to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on the telephone after Wednesday’s bombing, he reiterated that Russia is “on the wrong side of history”. Moscow has supplied weapons including attack helicopters to the Assad regime.

A White House statement nonetheless said the leaders “agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation”.

The mandate of the 300-man observer mission known as UNSMIS expires today unless agreement can be reached in the security council. Russia had proposed extending the mission, but without the threat of sanctions.

The US and Europe implemented sanctions against Damascus months ago, but wanted UN sanctions to squeeze the regime further.

Mr Carney said the US “does not support extending the mission without the necessary back-up that the resolution would have provided”.

The six-point peace plan drawn up by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan in April had failed, he said. That was obvious almost from the outset. But the admission was a virtual renunciation of the US goal of a “managed transition” in Syria in which “acceptable” remnants of the regime would work peacefully with the opposition to re-establish law and order.

As defence secretary Leon Panetta said after the Damascus bombing on Wednesday, the situation in Syria is “rapidly spinning out of control”. With diplomacy all but exhausted, the US is eagerly watching for signs that the all-powerful Syrian military is disintegrating, particularly through more high-level defections.

Predictions of Mr Assad’s fall could yet prove premature. US officials have for months written off the regime’s chances of survival, but after 42 years in power it is deeply entrenched. Amid great uncertainty, with few viable options, the White House is nonetheless attempting to plan for eventualities that could come to pass after such a fall.

The US would like to see the regime collapse without Washington’s or Nato’s intervention. Mr Obama has resisted calls from Republicans to arm the opposition, but has allowed US allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, to do so.

Syria’s once tightly controlled borders are porous and, according to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, CIA agents and Israeli intelligence are at the Turkish and Jordanian borders to the north and south assessing the rebels and assisting with command and control.

Mr Obama reportedly discussed the possibility of Israel destroying Syrian weapons facilities on the telephone with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But Israeli intervention could strengthen support for Mr Assad while discrediting the rebels. So US officials are wary of it.

A distinct possibility exists of all-out civil war between the Alawite regime, with its Druze and Christian allies, and the Sunni majority.

Recent massacres in Houla and Tremseh, on the fault-line between the Alawite mountains and the Sunni plains of northern Syria, have given a taste of what that might be like.

Syria’s considerable chemical weapons stockpile is another source of anxiety for the US. Washington wants to prevent Mr Assad deploying them against his own people. But it also wants to ensure they do not fall into the hands of Islamist militants, particularly al-Qaeda.