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Amid fresh diplomacy, U.S. still wary of direct Syria role

by
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks following a Security Council meeting regarding the current situation in the Middle East at UN Headquarters in New York March 12, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks following a Security Council meeting regarding the current situation in the Middle East at UN Headquarters in New York March 12, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs on Thursday for fresh diplomacy aimed at halting Syria's bloodshed, but there is little sign the Obama administration is ready to deviate from its hands-off approach.

Clinton's talks in Riyadh with foreign ministers from Gulf states will likely be anchored by a new peace proposal from U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan. It is the latest bid to broker a diplomatic end to more than a year of fighting between President Bashar al-Assad's troops and opponents to his family's decades-long rule.

Clinton is expected to use a special meeting on Syria in Istanbul on Sunday to pressure the country's divided opposition to unite. Without that step, there is little chance Assad's opponents can oust him without a military intervention the West clearly does not want.

While the Syrian leader has reportedly accepted Annan's six-point plan in principle, an opposition group said 13 civilians, fighters and soldiers were killed in clashes across the country on Thursday.

The Obama administration's approach to the crisis in Syria, with its capable military and its strategic location between U.S. allies Turkey and Israel, will continue to be "wary and slow-moving," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

For now at least, the White House seems more concerned by worries a military intervention could draw the United States into another messy Middle East conflict than it does by calls from Republican critics such as Senator John McCain for a more aggressive U.S. stance.

"If Assad has reached a turning point and really made headway against insurgents, I believe there is a good chance he will 'win' without too much American pushback," O'Hanlon said.

The renewed diplomacy comes as Assad faces mounting pressure from the West, from fellow Arab nations and even from staunch ally Russia. The United Nations says over 9,000 people have died since the Syrian uprising began last year.

Foreign ministers from the Arab League, which suspended Syria over the violence, called for Annan's peace plan to be put into action on Wednesday. But Arab states remain divided on how directly the outside world should be involved.

Global action on Assad to step down has been largely limited so far to diplomatic and economic pressure, a stark contrast to the NATO air campaign that former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi faced in a similar uprising last year.

U.S. President Barack Obama discussed providing medical supplies and communications support to the Syrian opposition with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan this week.

The United States may back further "non-lethal" aid for the opposition at the Istanbul meeting next week. But there was no talk of arming the rebel forces.

"The United States has been trying to find a responsible way to help, using sanctions and ‘moral support,'" said Joe Holliday, a security expert at the Institute for the Study of War.

"But it has been a balance between restraint and achieving the outcome it wants, getting Assad to go," he said.

A similar international meeting on Syria last month in Tunis, which Clinton also attended, has raised questions about how much diplomacy alone can accomplish.

WIDESPREAD SKEPTICISM ABOUT PEACE PROPOSAL

The Syria diplomatic crisis threatens to overshadow the final days in office of Clinton, who has said she will not serve after Obama's current term ends in January 2013. Clinton was seen as a proponent for intervening in Libya, but has herself been much more wary about Syria.

Among the few advocates for arming rebels are Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sunni Muslim-led nations deeply opposed to Syria's alliance with their regional rival, Shi'ite Iran.

Clinton is likely to hear a case for a more muscular response to the violence in Syria when she meets with Saudi leaders, including Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Other Arab states are more wary, worried a full-scale civil war could spill beyond Syria's borders.

As the death toll rises, their position could change, just as Assad's support from key ally Russia appears to be softening. Damascus buys billions of dollars worth of weapons from Russia and hosts a Mediterranean supply and maintenance facility that is Russia's only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.

Russia has backed Annan's new peace plan, which does not explicitly call for Assad to step aside.

"The key to making diplomacy work is the Russians," said Daniel Sewer, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Assad has reportedly accepted the Annan plan, which calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from cities and towns, aid, prisoner releases and access for journalists. But there is widespread skepticism it will become reality.

"We've heard Assad make promises and fail to deliver many times before," a State Department official said on condition of anonymity.

In the absence of successful diplomacy or an influx of weapons from abroad, poorly armed rebels in Syria will likely continue to struggle against better-armed Assad forces.

"Without systemic involvement or intervention, I don't think rebels will get to the point where they can beat Assad's military," said Holliday, a former U.S. intelligence officer.

Along with Syria, Clinton's talks in Riyadh will focus on expanded U.S. security cooperation with the Gulf in the face of Iran and other threats, a State Dept official said.

The United States has been buttressing Gulf countries with weapons sales, and hopes to develop a more coordinated approach that could cover such things as missile defense, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said this week.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Vicki Allen)

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