The continuing violence in Syria, where fighting between government troops and anti-Assad rebels has claimed dozens of additional lives in recent days, has increased pressure on the United States and its partners, as well as on Russia and China, to come up with plan that could serve as an alternative to that of U.N.-Arab League joint envoy Kofi Annan.
At various points in recent weeks, the former U.N. secretary general’s efforts have been declared dead. This week, media reports highlighted comments by some Syrian rebel commanders saying they were ending their commitment to Annan’s diplomatic efforts in the face of what they called numerous ceasefire violations by the Assad government. Assad blames rebels for the continuation of fighting.
After Assad’s comments denying a Syrian government role in a recent massacre, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked by one reporter if President Assad was “lying again to the world.” Without hesitation Carney answered “yes” and said the sooner a political transition takes place in Syria, the better the chances that a “bloody sectarian war” will be avoided.
A reporter then asked if he meant to say that if Assad stepped down such a war would not take place. Carney responded by revising his comment saying Assad’s departure would diminish the chances for such a conflict.
With the current Annan efforts stymied, the major question is what changes the international community can make to the current Annan plan that could stop the fighting, and pave the way for the kind of political transition the Obama administration and key allies and partners have been describing.
There are increasing indications that even Russia, which has resisted pressure from the U.S. and other U.N. Security Council members to endorse Assad’s immediate departure, now recognizes that Assad’s position has become unsustainable.
U.S. consultations with Russia continue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that Assad’s departure would not necessarily have to be a precondition for a solution, but must be an “outcome.”
Russia appears to be continuing to press for some alternative way forward that does not have the appearance of being dictated from outside of Syria, its longtime ally in the Middle East. Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted in news reports as saying Moscow had never insisted on Assad remaining in power.
With Annan scheduled to meet with Secretary Clinton in Washington on Friday, after her talks in Istanbul with European officials, representatives from Turkey and Arab countries, there is speculation about a possible Annan meeting with President Barack Obama.
The White House remains mum on this, with Carney telling reporters only that there were no schedule updates to announce, at least as of earlier this week.
Carney was asked if Annan’s talks in Washington were a sign that, in the words of one reporter, “the towel is being thrown in” on the Annan plan. He said he would let Annan speak for himself, adding that while the U.S. still supports the plan Washington remains “extremely skeptical” about Assad’s willingness to comply with it.
As the Annan/Clinton talks approach, the U.S. stepped up the pressure on Syria. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned that unless the Assad government demonstrates “meaningful compliance” with efforts to end violence, it could face tough international sanctions. He also made a point of saying this could include Chapter 7 action, which authorizes actions that can ultimately include use of military force.
The Obama administration has been saying for months that it opposes any action that would result in further “militarization” of the conflict in Syria, and administration officials are playing down this aspect of the Chapter 7 element.
As President Obama was flying to California on Wednesday for more campaign fund raising, Jay Carney stuck to the same basic script saying “all options” are under discussion regarding Syria.
Asked if Russia was moving closer to the U.S. position on necessary action to stop the fighting in Syria, Carney said Washington is glad Russia is “seeking broad international engagement on Syria” that the U.S. hopes will lead to progress.
Dan Robinson has been Voice of America's Senior White House Correspondent since 2010, arriving from Capitol Hill where he covered the House of Representatives from 2002 to 2009. He is also a former bureau chief for VOA in Southeast Asia, and East Africa, and headed VOA's Burma broadcast service between 1997 and 2001.