Obama, Putin talk as U.S. says Assad losing grip on Syria

WASHINGTON Wed Jul 18, 2012 5:42pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was losing control of his country and urged Russia and the international community to get behind a political transition plan to avert sectarian civil war.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Russian President Vladimir Putin - Assad's main international supporter - after a Damascus bomb blast killed Syria's defense minister and Assad's brother-in-law, throwing the 16-month old rebellion onto an unpredictable new path.

"The window is closing, we need to take action in a unified way to help bring about the transition that the Syrian people so deserve," White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a news conference.

The White House said Obama discussed the deteriorating Syrian situation with Putin, whose government has repeatedly blocked efforts to rally the U.N. Security Council behind tough measures against Damascus.

But while the two leaders agreed on the need to stop the violence, both Russian and U.S. officials said they ended the call divided over the best way forward.

"They noted the differences our governments have had on Syria, but agreed to have their teams continue to work toward a solution," the White House said in a statement.

With Russia adamantly opposed to what it sees as a Western-led attempt to dictate the outcome of Syria's crisis, the U.N. Security Council delayed until Thursday a proposed vote on a U.S.-backed resolution that threatens Damascus with sanctions if it does not stop using heavy weapons and withdraw troops from towns and cities.

Russia has indicated it will likely veto the measure if it comes to a vote.


The White House, reiterating the U.S. view that Assad's days are numbered, said the international community must now come together around a political transition plan to establish a democratic order in Syria after Assad departs.

"The sooner this transition happens, the greater the chance we have of averting a lengthy and bloody sectarian civil war and the better we'll be able to help Syrians manage a stable transition to democracy," said Tommy Vietor, another White House spokesman.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking earlier, said Syria was lurching into dangerous territory and emphasized that Assad's government would be held responsible if it failed to safeguard its chemical weapons sites - a major concern for U.S. and regional security planners.

"This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control," Panetta told a Pentagon news conference.

One European national security official, reflecting the intelligence estimate of Washington and its allies, said that while the deadly bomb blast that wiped out key Syrian security officials was a huge setback for Assad, it was not necessarily a death blow.

U.S. officials said they were still assessing reports of the Damascus attack - but did not condemn it outright.

"The United States does not welcome further bloodshed in Syria. We note, however, that these men were key architects of the Assad regime's assault on the Syrian people," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.

U.S. officials said they did not have any information on Assad's whereabouts, and declined to speculate on who might have been behind the attack.

"I have seen nothing yet that would lead me to believe we have a clear determination of who was behind it. It certainly has all the elements of an al Qaeda-type attack, knowing that al Qaeda has a significant presence there," Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, told Reuters.

"When there is confusion in the capital city all of these groups are going to try to take advantage of it."


U.S. officials emphasized that the chaos in Syria underlined the need for U.N. action, and said they were pressing the Security Council to support international mediator Kofi Annan's call for a resolution, which spells out consequences for Assad's failure to implement a widely ignored peace plan.

But the five permanent veto-wielding council members - the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France - remain deeply divided and U.S. officials indicated there was little progress thus far.

"We had a useful discussion but I wouldn't call it a negotiation," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after further talks between the permanent five members on Wednesday.

Pushing ahead with unilateral sanctions, the U.S. Treasury on Wednesday added 29 Syrian officials including virtually all of Assad's cabinet to the official U.S. blacklist.

The United States also designated one company controlled by Rami Makhluf, who the Treasury statement called a "crony" of Assad, as well as five companies linked to the Syrian government agency responsible for non-conventional weapons programs.

Syria's undeclared chemical weapons stockpile - believed to be the largest of its kind in the Middle East - has been reported to include sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide.

Western and Israeli officials have said in recent days that the Assad government appears to be shifting some chemical weapons from storage sites, but it is not clear whether the operation is merely a security precaution.

The Syrian government denies carrying out the operation.

U.S. officials said they had no indication Syria had lost control of any of its chemical weapons, but Panetta warned that the United States would be watching closely.

"We've made very clear to them that they have a responsibility to safeguard their chemical sites and that we will hold them responsible should anything happen with regards to those sites," Panetta said.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Phil Stewart, Tabassum Zakaria, Mark Hosenball, Margaret Chadbourne; editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham)

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Comments (63)
quatra wrote:
Already I can see him and his family hanging from the nearest lamppost or hiding in some rat’s nest.

Jul 18, 2012 4:47pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
LanceDeeply wrote:
Win, Lose or Draw? America and the West have lost the moral high ground. Whatever we do will be undone by the people and we should not be surprised our solutions will make things worse. How can so called educated and smart people fall for all this Propaganda?

Jul 18, 2012 6:29pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
howyea wrote:
There are elections scheduled to be held in Syria in 2014, more than can be said for the ‘Gulf’s oppression machine’ Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Where is the push for ‘freedom’ in these oppressive regime states? The ‘West’ as well as Bahrain, Israel and Saudi Arabia should stop arming and supporting the dubiously named Free Syrian Army (according to Human Rights Watch they are responsible for ‘incidents of kidnappings, torture and executions’).Now it seems they are carrying out suicide bombings also. This is an internal matter for the Syrian people to decide. Let them vote, let the UN monitor the vote instead of pandering to foreign interests that stand to gain from the destruction of a sovereign nation. External meddling will have the same dire results that have manifested themselves in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bias of this whole affair is sickening. The media should be ashamed of themselves for letting this bias continue.

According to a leading UK security think-tank …”The Libya campaign was hailed as a triumph for the principle of the responsibility to protect..But the truth may be otherwise. For the manner in which the initial security council resolution was contorted out of all recognition from the protection of civilians to, in effect, outright regime change has left a sour taste in the mouths of powers like China, Russia and India who still hold an absolute conception of state sovereignty.” (Short War, Long Shadow, published by the Royal United Services Institute)

In other words Russia, China and India all feel duped by the use of a UN mandate for an ulterior motive, and rightly so.

They might be asking themselves why the ‘west’ provides billions of dollars every year propping up a regime like Saudi Arabia, especially considering it comes further down the Democracy Index than Syria (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/)….. Could it be because the Saudi’s turn a blind eye to the expansionist policies of Israel and keep pumping oil no questions asked?? I wish this mess was really about standing up for innocent civilians, but I’m not that naive.

Jul 18, 2012 7:01pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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