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US calls siding with Syria a 'losing bet' but insists no military action forthcoming

 

Warning that it's a "losing bet" to side with dictator Bashar al-Assad, the White House on Monday urged friends of the Syrian people to help out "before the violence puts a political solution out of reach."

But refusing to offer a "lead from behind" strategy, the Obama administration insists that after nearly a year of violence and a disappointing weekend that saw a U.N. Security Council resolution fall apart upon Russian and Chinese objections, a military solution is not forthcoming.

On Monday, the U.S. shut down its embassy in Syria, withdrawing Ambassador Robert Ford and 17 American officials. The State Department issued a warning for U.S. citizens to leave the country and announced that Poland will serve as a "protecting power" for the United States, providing consular services to any Americans remaining in the country. 

That decision followed a violent crackdown in the city of Homs over the weekend that left hundreds dead. According to the U.N., since the March 2011 anti-government protests began, more than 5,400 Syrians have been killed, mostly by Assad forces.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the decision to leave the embassy is part of a long-term effort to draw down embassy staff in Damascus, a reflection of the weakened security situation in Syria and the need to ensure the safety of U.S. diplomats.

But while it's too dangerous for U.S. diplomats to stay in Syria, the violence is not too much for the U.S. government to intervene.

"I think it is very important to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention and I think that's possible," President Obama told NBC in an interview that aired Monday, explaining that the administration's "lead from behind" strategy used to drive out Muammar al-Qaddafi from Libya, would be implemented on "a case-by-case basis based on how unified the international community was, what our capacities were."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was more definitive on Saturday during a security conference in Munich, Germany.

"Military intervention has been absolutely ruled out, and we have made that clear from the very beginning," she said.

That insistence is a problem, said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Over the weekend, the Chinese and Russians vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution to enforce an Arab League plan that would call for Assad to step down and a transitional government to be installed. Satloff said taking the military off the table merely makes the vetoes more acceptable to those nations.

"If there is one thing that the Russians and Chinese detest more than third-party calls for 'leadership change,' it is the prospect of military intervention to implement it. That is why it was a mistake to remove the threat of intervention from the Syrian equation," Satloff wrote on the organization's website

He added that if violence escalates and the death toll shoots up in Syria, the administration may be forced to backtrack on its claims that it will not use military intervention, further muddling its response.

Over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said U.S. and Arab refusal to show a compromise with the Assad regime is prolonging and encouraging "armed extremist groups, which is only increasing the number of casualties."

Lavrov added that some of the responses to the U.N. Security Council vote "are indecent, I would say, and border on hysterics."

Syrian National Council member Farwaz Zakri responded Monday that the veto by the Russians and Chinese "showed their responsibility of the massacres in Syria." U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice predicted that "over time Russia and China will come to regret" the vote. 

"It was short-sighted. They are the ones that are isolated now, along with the Assad regime," she told CBS "This Morning."

Carney insisted that allies still have tools at their disposal to get rid of Assad. In addition, Assad's financial resources are dwindling and he is losing access to what he needs to govern. Carney said a number of indicators suggest senior Syrian government and military officials desire to part from the regime.

"These are telltale signs that Assad's future is very limited at best. And, you know, we continue to work with the international community to do everything we can to enhance the pressure on him," he said.

Carney also suggested that putting one's fortunes with the Assad regime will not benefit them in the end.

"It is a losing bet in real Realpolitik terms, but it's also a losing bet, obviously, in terms of being on the right side of the people of Syria," he said. "Those who voted against the resolution need to realize that betting everything on Assad is a recipe for failure."