West avoiding action in Syria, blaming Russia

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S. has spent months disparaging Russia for blocking strong U.N. action against Syria and standing by President Bashar Assad as his forces lay waste to rebellious cities.

But in many ways, Russia's stance is convenient for Washington and its allies which have their own reasons for avoiding direct intervention in yet another Arab nation in crisis.

Not the least of them is the impending U.S. presidential election in November. Others are the uncertain outcome of a military commitment and the war-weariness of the U.S. public.

"The fact that Russia is not budging on Syria certainly helps Washington in its efforts to justify its inaction," said Bilal Saab, a fellow and Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

For all the tough rhetoric over the carnage in Syria, Washington and its Western allies remain deeply reluctant to engage in any kind of military action such as the NATO-led mission that helped oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

The American domestic political situation is also a factor. President Barack Obama faces a tough re-election battle, and his people are focused on their economic woes. Many are clamoring for an end to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after the American pullout from Iraq and would oppose yet another military adventure.

The U.S. would rather deflect blame for the bloody conflict onto its old Cold War foe.

Russia's continued support for Assad "is going to help contribute to a civil war," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned last month.

Syria has become one of the bloodiest and murkiest conflicts of the Arab Spring, and world powers have been unable to stop the violence which has so far killed 14,000, according to opposition groups.

The country is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel's case, a fragile truce. Its web of allegiances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.

Many fear a destabilized Syria could send unsettling ripples through the region or lead to a regional war pulling in Iran and Israel.

Syria also has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Tensions over Syria have turned into a proxy confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Officials of the two countries traded harsh accusations last week, charging each other with providing military support to opposing sides of the conflict in Syria.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement after meeting Monday in Mexico, affirming the right of the Syrian people to democratically determine their future, but without referring to Assad or his future.

U.S. and U.N. officials have said that a six-point peace plan brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan was in fact the only plan on the table for dealing with the Syrian crisis for the time being. That plan seemed to be unraveling this week — U.N. observers in Syria announced they were suspending all missions because of escalating violence over the previous 10 days.

The Syrian regime has contributed to the international tension by systematically ignoring initiatives and sanctions, often with the support of Moscow.

Clinton has acknowledged that military intervention faces serious hurdles beyond Russian reticence.

Among those, she said, were Syria's substantial air defenses, divisions among Arab countries on whether military options should be entertained in Syria, and the danger of Syria's unrest spiraling into a larger civil war which could spill over Syrian borders.

"We know it could actually get much worse than it is," Clinton said.

U.S. officials have also cited the risk of a "proxy war" with Syrian ally Iran backing Assad and other outside nations or forces backing insurgent factions. The U.S. is among six world powers engaged in talks with Iran meant to reduce tensions over Tehran's nuclear activities.

"Obama believes that his strategy for Iran, a far more important issue than Syria for this administration, is working," Saab said. Obama "does not want to mess it up by fishing in troubled Syrian waters."

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Karam has covered Syria since 1996.

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