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May 31, 2012

US Slams Russia, Warns of Promoting Civil War in Syria

by Scott Stearns, Jessica Golloher

COPENHAGEN - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed Russia Thursday, blaming "very strong opposition" from Moscow for blocking efforts to put together an international coalition to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

During a visit to the Danish capital of Copenhagen, Clinton warned Russian opposition is not acceptable as the situation in Syria continues to erode, with both the Syrian military and pro-government militias increasingly targeting and slaughtering innocent civilians.

"We know it could actually get much worse than it is," Clinton said. "And we are trying to prevent that," "They [the Russians] 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."

Clinton's warning echoes similar concerns put forward by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said Thursday that incidents such as last week's massacre of 100 people in the central town of Houla "could plunge Syria into a catastrophic civil war ... from which the country would never recover."

Moscow stands firm

Moscow remained resolute Thursday, signaling it would continue to block any effort to authorize military intervention in its long-time Middle Eastern ally.

"It is hardly appropriate to talk about this position changing under someone's pressure," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency.

Moscow has long said it wants to see dialogue with both the Syrian opposition and President Assad’s regime, though Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Russia's stance should not be seen as support for the Assad government.

Clinton said Thursday that Russia's position is not good enough.

"It is not a satisfactory answer yet, but we are trying to keep pushing all the pieces together," she said.  "The Syrians are not going to listen to us. They will listen, maybe, to the Russians. So we have to keep pushing them."

U.S. fears

The U.S. is also worried about the situation in Syria spiraling out of control, sparking a proxy war.

"You have Iran deeply embedded in Syria. 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," Clinton said. "And you have Russia continuing to supply them arms."

Russia says it wants dialogue, and enforcement of the cease-fire brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.  Washington says Annan should be empowered to expand his mandate and confront Damascus about its role in the escalating violence.   

But analysts say the U.S. may be hard-pressed to get its way.

"I think Russia has taken a firm stand that it would not be allowed to use the U.N. Security Council for regime change, for toppling a national leader," said Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.  "Russia has made it very clear that it will not come on board with Western countries, especially given the physical stage in U.S.-Russia relations. This stand will remain firm."

Despite the strained relations, on Sunday Russia did support a non-binding Security Council resolution that strongly condemned the Houla massacre.  It has also criticized Assad’s government for using heavy weapons in population centers.

Stearns reported from Copenhagen and Golloher from Moscow.