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Obama administration's policy on Syria reflects tacit nod to Assad's firm hold on power

Syrian-funeral.jpg

April 16, 2012: Syrians gather for a funeral for 6-year-old Yousef al-Najjar in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. The boy's family says he was shot in the chest when Syrian forces opened fire on the family car, seriously wounding his mother and infant brother. (AP)

Despite oft-repeated U.S. demands that Syrian President Bashar Assad step aside, the Obama administration's policy now reflects a consensus that Assad has a firm hold on power and that nothing short of an outside military strike will dislodge him quickly.

With rebel forces poorly armed and disorganized, efforts to pay them by Arab Gulf states failing, and sectarian divisions looming in Syria, the U.S. and its allies seem prepared to leave Assad where he is. Even if he could be ousted, the near future in Syria would involve civil war among ethnic groups now under Assad's boot, or a slow and bloody war with rebels or proxy fighters armed from the outside.

The U.S. has edged toward supplying the rebels with communications gear and other nonlethal aid but has ruled out either a military assault or a supply of heavy weaponry for rebel forces.

"We are at a crucial turning point," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

Either a U.N.-brokered cease-fire takes hold "or we see Assad squandering his last chance before additional measures have to be considered," Clinton said.

But even as she suggests further action, as she has many times before, Clinton is not expected to announce a shift in the U.S. stance during a diplomatic huddle on Syria in Paris on Thursday.

The United States backs the cease-fire between Assad's forces and rebels, but the deal also represents recognition that Assad remains in control of the armed forces and holds the power to suspend attacks on civilians and rebels.

The week-old cease-fire was supposed to allow greater humanitarian and other relief to enter the country.

Syria has violated key provisions. Tanks, troops and widely feared plainclothes security agents continue to patrol the streets to deter anti-government protests, while the regime resumed its assault on rebellious Homs, Syria's third-largest city, over the weekend after only a brief lull.

U.S. officials regularly say Assad is no longer a legitimate leader, but they hold no direct leverage to make him leave, or even make him listen to international condemnation.

"Assad must step down," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week. "I mean, we continue to take that position. At the same time, I think, we believe that we have to continue to work with the international community to keep putting pressure on Assad."

Even relatively harsh new sanctions on Syria are a tacit admission that Assad isn't going anywhere anytime soon. And the rebels are no closer to ridding the country of him despite 13 months of fighting and 9,000 mostly civilian deaths.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Wednesday that his country was observing the cease-fire plan laid out by special envoy Kofi Annan.

In a meeting in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, Moallem said the Syrian government would "honor and implement" its commitment to withdraw the army from cities and would cooperate with United Nations observers arriving in the country.

The U.N. insists the fragile truce is holding even though regime forces have been hammering Homs with artillery for days.

The Obama administration recently signed off on $12 million in enhanced communications, medical and other assistance to the opposition, but it is unclear what goods are making their way into Syria and by what means.

International sanctions on Assad's regime have depleted its foreign currency reserves by half -- and Damascus is actively trying to evade them, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday as he opened a Paris meeting of some 57 countries, including Arab League states, to reinforce sanctions and denounce Assad. Clinton will attend a smaller gathering of "core" nations addressing the Syrian problem, also in Paris, diplomats said.

At a larger gathering two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab states pledged donations from a multimillion-dollar fund designed to prop up Syrian rebels and entice defections from Assad's army. Washington seized on the plan as a path forward even though the U.S. disagrees with Arab states that want to give weapons to the badly outgunned rebels.

Syrian opposition members and international officials say no money has been sent yet, in part because the Arab governments stepped into a logistical thicket when they began trying to figure out how to route the money to the right people.

There's no way to monitor where the money goes as the country veers toward civil war. Because the rebels hold no territory and struggle even to maintain communications inside and outside Syria, there is no clear way to deliver the money.

The U.S. and other nations have tried a variety of ways to get Assad to ease a crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators inspired by last year's Arab revolutions. The U.S. has long since given up hope that Assad would negotiate with protesters and peacefully give up power. But from the start last year, the U.S. rejected any call for a direct military response like the one mounted a year ago in Libya.

The reasons are simple and, like the current U.S. stance, they reflect the reality of Assad's entrenched family dynasty.

Syria's military is vastly more powerful and better-equipped than Libya's was and is arrayed throughout cities and towns. Any air assault by the U.S. or other outsiders would probably kill many civilians.

The assault would have to be broad and sustained to knock out Syria's heavy artillery and other defenses. That indicates a longer and far more expensive operation than the one in Libya, which was undertaken with NATO help.

Despite widespread disgust and anger at Assad, there is no international mandate for forcibly removing him. Syria was never the outcast that Libya under Moammar Gadhafi became, and it maintained trading and diplomatic relationships around the globe.

European countries are unlikely to get militarily involved without the United States, and Turkey has backed off from talk of creating buffer zones along the Syrian border. Any foreign military action could provoke anger from Russia and China, and open hostility from Iran, whose personnel have actively supported Assad's government.

Russia and China have twice shielded Syria from U.N. sanctions over the crackdown.

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