Inter Press Service
While recent reports of two mass killings in Syria by pro-regime forces have increased pressure on President Barack Obama to intervene more directly in support of the opposition, his administration appears determined to avoid any military involvement.
Citing the increased violence, neo-conservatives and other hawks have been pressing their case for Washington to arm opposition forces and aid Turkey and Jordan in creating and enforcing "safe zones" for civilians along their borders with Syria, at the very least.
"In addition, the U.S. and our NATO allies could strengthen sanctions on Syria by mounting a naval blockade of the Syrian coastline," according to Max Boot, a prominent neo-conservative at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"This would make it more difficult for Syria's principal supporters, Russia and Iran, to provide arms to the regime," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, noting that airstrikes to take out the regime's key military assets — as they did in Libya — should also be considered.
For now, however, the administration, concerned about the possibility of being drawn into yet another Middle East quagmire and worried that further militarising the conflict risks destabilising Syria's neighbours, is firmly resisting such advice.
While expressing growing scepticism about efforts by U.N.-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan to implement a ceasefire and a transition plan that would eventually remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, the administration is standing by the former U.N. secretary-general, who will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton here Friday.
Citing reports of a massacre of 78 civilians in a village in central Hama province, Clinton toughened her rhetoric in an appearance with her Turkish counterpart in Istanbul. Assad, she said, has "doubled down on his brutality and duplicity".
"Syria will not, cannot, be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes," she declared, stressing that Washington intends to intensify economic and diplomatic sanctions against the regime and encourage other governments to do so as part of a coordinated effort to persuade Assad's supporters in the military and the business community to abandon him.
Annan himself also suggested that more pressure should be brought to bear on Assad in remarks to the U.N. General Assembly Thursday. Conceding that his five-week-old ceasefire plan was "not being implemented", he said it was time to consider "what other options exist to end the violence".
"The violence is getting worse," he said. "…(T)he country is becoming more polarised and more radicalised. And Syria's immediate neighbours are increasingly worried about the threat of spillover."
According to the well-connected Washington Postcolumnist David Ignatius, Annan hopes to gain the U.N. Security Council's approval for the creation of a "contact group" composed of the Council's five permanent members, a representative of the Arab League, Turkey, and Iran to draft a detailed transition plan that, among other things, would provide Assad with safe exile in either Russia or Iran, new presidential and parliamentary elections, and reform of the country's security forces.
Involving both Russia and Iran — both of which have, to a limited extent, distanced themselves from Assad, particularly in light of the latest reports of regime-backed mayhem — in this process could reassure them that their interests will be protected in a post-Assad regime.
The administration is expected to support the proposal, at least as it regards Russia, which has long been seen by Washington as the key to diplomatic efforts to persuade Assad to step down.
Iran's involvement, however, is considered far more problematic, as Clinton made clear, saying it was "hard…to imagine that a country putting so much effort into keeping Assad in power …would be a constructive actor." She added that Iran would not be considered an "appropriate participant at this point".
Meanwhile, hawks here have cited the mass killings in Hama and in Houla as proof that Annan's diplomatic efforts — which included the deployment of up to 300 monitors — were a waste of time at best.
"One immediately required action is to abandon any wishful thinking that (Annan's) …efforts will help the situation, or that Russia's conscience will finally be shocked straight," wrote Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising star in the Republican Party with neo- conservative views, in the Wall Street Journal.
"The U.S. should urge Mr. Annan to condemn Assad and resign his job as envoy so that Syria's regime and other governments can no longer hide behind the façade of his mediation efforts."
Arguing that diplomacy "doesn't stand a chance …unless the military balance tips against Assad", Rubio, who is reportedly being considered by presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as his vice-presidential running-mate, went on, arguing "empowering and supporting Syria's opposition today will give us our best chance of influencing it tomorrow."
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defence policy studies at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), urged the administration to "double down on the light arms that the Saudis and Qataris are supplying to the Free Syrian Army" and transfer "more substantial weaponry to groups reportedly in line to be vetted by the CIA".
"Far from intensifying a conflict that is claiming thousands of lives, effective weapons may finally give the edge to the opposition and coax more significant defections from the Syrian army," she argued, noting that such bold moves could bolster Obama's re-election prospects.
In recent days, the neo-conservatives have been joined by a few liberal interventionists, including former secretary of state Madeleine Albright's spokesman, James Rubin, who argued in foreignpolicy.com that overthrowing Assad could forestall an Israeli attack on Iran, and her ambassador to Morocco, Marc Ginsberg, who called for the administration to "send the Neville Chamberlin (sic)- wannabe former SecGen (Annan) back to his rocking chair."
At the same time, there has been substantial pushback by leading figures of the foreign policy establishment, including former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
"We cannot afford to be driven from expedient to expedient into undefined military conflict taking on an increasingly sectarian character," he warned. "In reacting to one human tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another."
Similarly, Fareed Zakaria, former editor of the Foreign Affairs journal and Time magazine's editor-at-large, defended the administration's approach of working with other countries to impose and tighten sanctions on the regime and its key supporters and pressing Russia to abandon Assad.
"It would be morally far more satisfying to do something dramatic that would topple Assad tomorrow," he wrote in his weekly column in Time. "But starving his regime might prove the more effective strategy."