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May 31, 2012

Clinton Slams Russia on Syria

by Scott Stearns

COPENHAGEN - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says continuing Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is blocking United Nations action to end 15 months of violence and could help lead to civil war. Clinton is in Denmark, at the beginning of a one-week trip to Europe.

Secretary Clinton says "very strong opposition" from Russia is making it harder to put together an international coalition against President Assad. But, she says Washington is not giving up on such a coalition, because "every day that goes by makes the case stronger."

Clinton told a question-and-answer session with youth leaders in the Danish capital that, without Russian support, U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan cannot expand his mandate to push Damascus to confront what she calls terrible dangers.

Clinton says the continuing slaughter of innocent people by the military, by pro-government militia and by government opponents could become civil war. In a country already riven by sectarian divides.  She says that could quickly become a regional proxy war.

"You have Iran deeply embedded in Syria," she said. "Their military are coaching the Syrian military. Their so-called Quds force, which is a branch of the military, is helping them set up these sectarian militias. And, you have Russia continuing to supply them arms."

Clinton says the threat of wider regional conflict is fed by cross-border security concerns in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

"We know it could actually get much worse than it is. And, we are trying to prevent that," she said. "And, my argument to the Russians is they keep telling me they don't want to see a civil war. And, I have been telling them their policy is going to help contribute to a civil war. It is not a satisfactory answer yet, but we are trying to keep pushing all the pieces together to support Kofi Annan as an independent voice because the Syrians are not going to listen to us. They will listen, maybe, to the Russians. So we have to keep pushing them."

Russia's Interfax news agency Thursday quoted President Vladimir Putin's spokesman as saying Russia's position on Syria is well-known, balanced, consistent, and completely logical. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov says "it is hardly appropriate to talk about this position changing under someone's pressure."

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon told a forum in Turkey Thursday that recent massacres of civilians could plunge Syria into a "catastrophic civil war" from which the country would never recover.