The United States and its Western allies appear increasingly inclined to push for regime change in Syria, although the latest round of diplomatic talks at the U.N. Security Council Wednesday suggest that it remains a distant possibility.
Both Russia and China, the two leading members of the Shanghai Cooperation Pact, a growing military alliance in Asia, have made it clear that they do not wish Syria to become another Libya.
"The opposition groups are taking opportunities for killings," said Russian ambassador Vladimir Churkin, alluding to the mass slaughter of civilians in the Syrian town of Houla last weekend.
The United States, Britain and 11 other nations jointly expelled Syrian ambassadors and diplomats following the May 25 killings of more than 100 people, including dozens of children, which the U.N. and witnesses say were likely perpetrated by pro-government militias known as Shabiha.
In contrast, the Russian envoy asserted Wednesday that all the parties involved in the Syrian conflict were responsible for the incident and said that they must resolve their differences by peaceful means.
Churkin seemed supportive of the Syrian government’s contention that Al-Qaeda and other extremist elements were being armed by outside forces, but did not give details.
"I don’t know," he told IPS in response to a question the sources of funding and weapons to the Syrian opposition.
Syrian ambassador Dr. Bashar Ja’afar, however, reiterated that weapons were coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the closest U.S. allies in the region and major suppliers of oil to the West.
On Wednesday, following the Security Council meeting, U.S. ambassador Susan Rice hinted that Washington and its European allies might take action "outside" the fold of the U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for peaceful settlement of the Syrian conflict.
The plan put forth by Annan, a former U.N. secretary general, calls for an end to the violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief, the release of detainees, the start of political dialogue, and access for the media.
Talking to reporters after the closed-door meeting, Rice acknowledged that there were "serious differences" on the question of possible sanctions against the Syrian government in the Security Council.
"We need to explore with Russia and others about what other steps can be taken," she said. "We will continue negotiations in the next few days."
Some long-time observers of political conflicts in the Middle East see a certain degree of ambivalence in the West’s posture toward Damascus.
"I think the U.S. and its Western allies are desperate to figure out a strategy in Syria, and they don’t have one," Phyllis Bennis, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-tank in Washington, told IPS. "Although regime change is clearly on their wish list now, it wasn’t until pretty recently.
"Syria, despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric, was pretty useful for Israel. (It) kept the Golan Heights quiet. (It kept) the Israeli border relatively peaceful," although it was "a bit troublesome hosting/supporting Hamas and Hezbollah", she added.
"The recent massacre in Houla meant they had to figure out an immediate response, and this was about all they could think of that wouldn’t make everything worse. It’s a disaster on all fronts."
The Golan Heights of Syria were occupied by Israel during the 1967 war with Egypt and other Arab nations. Since then, Syria has continued to support not only the Palestinians, but also democratic struggles in several countries in the so-called Islamic world.
In addition to Russia, Syria has close ties with Iran and Lebanon’s Shia leadership, as well as with the militant Palestinian groups, which has become a constant source of irritation for the West and Israel.
On Wednesday, U.N. observers reported that 13 more bodies were discovered in eastern Syria. All the victims had their hands tied behind their backs and some appear to have been shot in the head from a short distance.
The U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and tens of thousands displaced since the opposition campaign against President Bashar al-Assad began some 15 months ago.
The massacre in Houla will be the subject of a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday.
"It’s important that the truth, the facts be established in a way that nobody can challenge," Annan’s deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said in a statement. "That is essential."
"The government of Syria needs to take steps to convince, I would say, not only the international community but more importantly the Syrian people that it is ready for a new course," he said.
As chief mediator of the conflict, Annan is due to attend the Arab League meeting on Jun. 2 in Doha on the Syrian situation.
The Russians say they want to see Annan’s plan implemented effectively and that any move by the West to oust the government by force would be unacceptable.
The U.N. Security Council president’s statement concerning the killings in Houla "is a strong enough signal to the Syrian parties and is a sufficient reaction," Churkin told Interfax news agency earlier this week.
Any new measures to affect the situation, he said, "would be premature for the Security Council".
China is siding with Russia regarding the Syrian conflict. On Wednesday, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Liu Weimin, confirmed that Beijing would oppose any foreign military intervention into Syrian affairs.
France, the former occupying power in Syria, appears to be taking a middle path. In a recent statement, the French president noted that "another solution" is preferable. He called for more sanctions to be imposed on the Syrian government.
On Wednesday, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, who faces a general election in November, added new sanctions on a Syrian bank to increase the pressure on the Assad government.
"Elections do affect these things," James Paul of the Global Policy Forum, which tracks international politics at the U.N., told IPS. "It’s a way of saying they have no rights. It’s part of a propaganda campaign."
Paul, who is critical of the regime in Syria, described the Syrian situation as a "conundrum".
"The regime in Damascus has more support internally," he said. "It’s a very complicated issue."
In his view, much of the media reporting on Syria is "basically Western propaganda, which does everything to prevent focus on Palestine.
"The press has brought this campaign to turn Assad into Hitler of the month, but it has failed."
(Inter Press Service)