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Hillary Clinton warns of 'brutal civil war' in Syria

The U.S. secretary of State's warning comes after the collapse of a U.N. plan for Syria. The Arab League vows to continue to work toward a peaceful resolution.

February 05, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Antigovernment demonstrators in Idlib, northern Syria, carry the coffin of a fellow protester.
Antigovernment demonstrators in Idlib, northern Syria, carry the coffin… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Beirut — A day after the collapse of a United Nations plan for Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that the situation on the ground could degenerate into "a brutal civil war." The head of the Arab League, meanwhile, said Arab states would continue to work toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

A Syrian opposition movement that had its hopes dashed in New York was attempting to regroup.

There was general agreement on one point: The conflict in Syria could drag on for a long time.

The failure of the Security Council proposal, offered by the Arab League and Western powers, "will actually increase the chances for a brutal civil war," Clinton told reporters on a trip to Bulgaria. "Many Syrians, under attack from their own government, are moving to defend themselves, which is to be expected."

On Saturday, Russia and China vetoed the resolution, which would have condemned President Bashar Assad's crackdown on protesters and called for Assad to relinquish power to make way for a unity government and internationally supervised elections.

Most observers agree that the conflict in Syria, which began with protest marches, has become an increasingly militarized struggle pitting Assad's government against an expanding armed opposition. Assad's imposing security apparatus may be stretched thin, and morale may be low, but it still appears to possess the armor and personnel to overwhelm its adversaries, at least for now.

With the U.N. plan in tatters, experts say the Syrian rebellion — approaching its anniversary next month — could well evolve into a protracted and bloody insurgency. Such a conflict seems sure to heighten regional instability, given Syria's strategic and geopolitical significance in the volatile Middle East.

"What everybody expects is that this is going to turn into a long struggle, and it's going to be a military struggle," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "There isn't a quick fix.... The regime is doomed, but it's going to take a long time."

Even if the Security Council had approved the resolution, there was no indication that Assad would have ceded power. The resolution explicitly ruled out military intervention, so it was never clear how Assad could have been forced to comply.

The Russians called the proposal an "unbalanced" measure that implicitly endorsed a change of government in Damascus.

Without U.N. action, Clinton vowed that Washington and allied nations seeking Assad's ouster would work to increase diplomatic pressure, bolster humanitarian aid and lighten economic sanctions. The top U.S. diplomat called on allies "to support the opposition's peaceful political plans for change."

The Syrian opposition, however, is a diverse and divided assemblage, including Islamists, secularists, armed rebels and dissidents opposed to violent revolution. Some reject any negotiations with the Assad government; others favor some form of talks. Choosing which groups or factions to support poses a challenge for Washington and other capitals favoring peaceful transition — not a long-term guerrilla war.

In Cairo, Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League's secretary-general, seemed to indicate Sunday that the league's peace proposal, which formed the basis of the rejected U.N. plan, could still be resuscitated in some form.

The U.N. veto "does not negate that there is clear international support for the resolutions of the Arab League," Elaraby said in a statement. He voiced hope that the Syrian government "heeds the demands of its people and ends the violence and the bloodshed."

Meanwhile, the death toll continued to rise in Syria. Opposition activists reported at least 22 killed Sunday in violence across the country. Iranian television reported that the bodies of 50 security service personnel had been delivered to a hospital in the battlefield city of Homs, which has been the scene of intense fighting for months. There was no independent confirmation of the casualty reports.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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