By Bob Duncan
Concerns are rising that effective action to curtail the current atrocities in Syria may be delayed until after the US presidential elections in November. A weekend massacre of civilians in Syria has again demonstrated a lack of appetite on the part of Washington and many of its allies for military action against Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
White House aides say they have limited options in the Syria crisis. President Obama has all but ruled out arming Syrian rebels, whose peaceful protests are changing into a to-the-death fight over the country’s future.
The Obama administration has also shown little appetite for imposing a “no-fly” zone over Syria or bombing Assad’s loyalists to protect civilians – as was done by NATO in Libya last year – or even for carving out a humanitarian zone on Syria’s borders under armed international protection.
The USA could forge a coalition of willing countries – including some Gulf states and some NATO members – to depose Assad by force but the White House has made clear there is almost no chance Obama will do that. He is campaigning for re-election in November in part on his ending of one war, in Iraq, and winding down another, in Afghanistan.
Republicans too are divided on the right course of action in Syria and how much political capital Washington should invest there. “We’re just not exactly sure who the bad guys are and who the good guys are right now in Syria,” the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said on Wednesday.
“Americans are war-weary, Americans are focused on our own economy, Americans want us to invest in our future,” Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Udall said in a conference call with reporters during a trip to the Middle East. “I don’t think this is at the top of Americans’ list of concerns.”
With most Americans opposed to another large-scale U.S. military commitment overseas and the Syria crisis barely registering for many U.S. voters, Obama’s aides and supporters believe he can weather attacks on the issue. Polls in recent months have shown between two-thirds and three-quarters of voters opposed to U.S. intervention. Not even human rights groups are demanding major military action.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces have renewed their attack on the city of Homs, one of the focal points of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US was “deeply alarmed” at “reports from inside Syria that the regime may be organising another massacre”. Such an attack could happen, it suggested, in al-Haffa or the towns of Deir el-Zour, Homs or Hama, or in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 74 people were killed across Syria on Monday. The Syrian government is blaming the violence on foreign-backed armed terrorist gangs.
According to opposition activists, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have renewed efforts to impose control in Homs province, killing at least 35 people in one of the biggest bombardments since a failed UN-mandated ceasefire in April.
The activists said the Syrian army used artillery, mortars and rockets to hit opposition strongholds in the city of Homs and the towns of Qusair, Talbiseh and Rastan in central Syria.
Amateur video appeared to show Homs coming under heavy bombardment today as loud explosions sounded and thick, black smoke rose from buildings. The footage cannot be independently verified due to government restrictions on foreign reporters inside Syria.
Foreign Secretary William Hague says time is running out for President Assad’s regime in Syria to implement the Annan plan. The Foreign Secretary repeated his call for the implementation of the peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, but said all options were open if that failed.
In a statement to MPs in the House of Commons, Mr Hague said: “We don’t want to see the Annan plan fail but if, despite our best efforts, it does not succeed, we would have to consider other options for resolving the crisis. In our view all options should then be on the table.”
The Syrian regime and militias supporting President Bashar Assad had committed “savage crimes”, Mr Hague said, adding that the tactics were “horrifyingly reminiscent of the Balkans in the 1990s.”
The new head of Syria’s main opposition group has called for mass defections from the regime which he says is “on its last legs” after a series of massacres, and as the death toll in the uprising tops 14,000.
“We are entering a sensitive phase. The regime is on its last legs,” Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda told AFP on Sunday shortly after being named the new leader of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC).
“The multiplying massacres and shellings show that it is struggling,” he said of mass deaths of civilians, the most recent of which saw 20 people, mostly women and children, killed in a bombardment of the southern city of Deraa on Saturday.
At his first news conference since taking over the reins, Sayda called on all members of the Damascus regime to defect, while reaching out to minority groups by promising them a full say in a future, democratic Syria. “We call upon all officials in the regime and in the institutions to defect from the regime,” Sayda told reporters in Istanbul.