US Syria policy a tacit nod to Assad's firm grip

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 could 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 United Nations-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 implies tougher international intervention, Clinton is not expected to announce a shift in the U.S. stance during a diplomatic huddle on Syria in Paris on Thursday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said late Wednesday he still believes there could be progress in Syria and recommended the Security Council increase the number of observers to 300.

In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Ban told the council he will consider developments on the ground, including consolidation of the cease-fire, before deciding on when to expand the mission beyond the 250 observers initially envisioned. The Security Council was scheduled to discuss Ban's letter and recommendations at a closed meeting Thursday morning.

The United States backs the cease-fire between Assad's forces and rebels, but the deal also inherently acknowledges that Assad controls the armed forces and holds the power to suspend attacks on civilians and rebels.

The week-old cease-fire administered by special envoy Kofi Annan 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.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes broke out Thursday in Deir el-Zour, near the border with Iraq, killing one civilian and wounding three others. Syrian troops also began shelling rebel-held neighborhoods in Homs early Thursday, according to the Observatory.

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.

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. Some 57 countries, including Arab League states, agreed in Paris to reinforce sanctions and denounce Assad.

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.

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, 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.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that for some on the Syrian opposition and their foreign backers, the cease-fire is a cover to arm rebels.

"There are too many people on the other side of the barricades who want to undermine the work of the observers, to bury the Kofi Annan plan and then call for the creation of security corridors for military support to the opposition and then for military intervention," Lavrov said in Brussels.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Thursday that he expects the stance of Russia and China to evolve because they "don't like to be isolated."


Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.