COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday laid out arguments against armed intervention in Syria despite last week’s massacre in the town of Houla.
Speaking to Danish students, Clinton got tough questions on what might motivate the United States and other nations to take military action in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is battling a 14-month-old anti-government uprising.
Friday’s massacre of more than 100 civilians, many of them children, in Houla has triggered calls for the West to take more robust action in Syria, despite Russian and Chinese opposition.
However, Clinton rehearsed U.S. arguments against armed intervention for now in contrast with Libya, where Western-led air strikes last year helped end Muammar Gaddafi’s rule.
Clinton said Syria had a more diverse society with greater ethnic divisions, no unified opposition, stronger air defences and a much more capable military than Libya’s.
Above all, she stressed there was no international support because of Russian and Chinese opposition at the U.N. Security Council, where they have twice vetoed resolutions on Syria.
Speaking later at a news conference with the Danish foreign minister, Clinton said she would try to change Russia’s stance.
“The Russians keep telling us they want to do everything they can to avoid a civil war because they believe that the violence would be catastrophic,” she said.
“They often ... liken it to the equivalent of a very large Lebanese civil war and they are just vociferous in their claim that they are providing a stabilising influence. I reject that.
“I think they are in effect propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition,” she said.
Clinton told the students that Syria’s population density increased the odds of civilian casualties in any armed action.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out what could be an effective intervention that wouldn’t cause more death and suffering,” she said. “We are thinking about all of this. There’s all kinds of both civilian and humanitarian and military planning going on but the factors are just not there.”
Clinton said she had told Moscow that the chances of a full-blown civil war in Syria were higher if the world failed to act.
“The dangers we face are terrible,” she said, saying the violence pitting government forces and pro-Assad militias against rebels would turn into something much worse.
“(That) could morph into a civil war in a country that would be riven by sectarian divides, which could then morph into a proxy war in the region because remember you have Iran deeply embedded in Syria,” she said.
Clinton did not describe any alternatives to United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace efforts.
“We are trying to keep pushing all the pieces to support Kofi Annan as an independent voice because the Syrians are not going to listen to us,” she said. “They may listen, maybe, to the Russians, so we have been pushing them.”
Clinton made clear at the news conference with her Danish counterpart that Washington was not considering military action.
“We are nowhere near putting together any kind of coalition other than to alleviate the suffering,” she said.
Asked if the United States might consider acting on Syria without an explicit U.N. Security Council resolution - a possibility hinted at on Wednesday by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations - Clinton said Washington plans for all contingencies but was firmly behind the Annan plan “for now”.
Editing by Alistair Lyon