Possible NATO Role Eyed in Syria Conflict

By Patrick Goodenough | April 20, 2012 | 5:17am EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta meet with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on April 18, 2012. (Photo: NATO/State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – As the United States Thursday accused the Assad regime of unleashing “yet another wave of horrific violence against the Syrian people” despite a week-old ceasefire, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed to the possibility of NATO involvement.

A day after noting that “this conflict is taking place right on NATO’s border,” Clinton told a “Friends of Syria” ministerial meeting in France that Turkey was considering invoking article four of NATO’s founding treaty.

Article four states that NATO member states “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”

Syrian forces last Monday fired shots across the border with Turkey, killing two people and wounding several more in a refugee camp housing some of the estimated 20,000 Syrians who have fled the conflict.

Article four is one of the North Atlantic Treaty’s two key provisions. Turkey invoked it, for what was believed to be the first time, in February 2003 amid intra-NATO squabbles and fears of a possible Iraqi attack on Turkey in the weeks leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The other key article, number five, states that an attack on any member is considered an attack on all. It has been invoked only once in the alliance’s history, after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.

“We have to keep [Syrian President Bashar] Assad off balance by leaving options on the table,” Clinton said during Thursday’s meeting in Paris, held shortly after she and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta participated in NATO deliberations in Brussels.

“Turkey already has discussed with NATO during our ministerial over the last two days the burden of Syrian refugees on Turkey, the outrageous shelling across the border from Syria into Turkey a week ago, and that Turkey is considering formally invoking article four of the North Atlantic Treaty, which triggers consultations in NATO whenever the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened,” she said.

Asked during a CNN interview in Brussels whether NATO was “impotent” when it came to the Syria conflict, Panetta replied, “I don’t think so. I think that NATO, frankly, has shown that it can take on the challenges.”

In contrast to the Libya situation last year, however, he noted that the international community has not made a decision about NATO involvement in Syria.

“If the international community makes the decision that we have to take further steps [in Syria], we’ll be prepared to do that,” Panetta said.

On Wednesday, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen was asked during a press briefing about the possibility of Turkey invoking article four or five with regard to the Syria conflict.

He said NATO was “prepared to consult on any issue that may be raised by any ally, but so far we have not received a request.”

Rasmussen also said the alliance has “no intention to intervene in Syria. We’re not considering taking action.”

Russia rift

In Paris, Clinton also announced that the U.S. plans to push “very vigorously” for a U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution under chapter seven of the U.N. Charter, that would include travel restrictions, financial sanctions and an arms embargo. Under chapter seven, any action taken to restore or maintain “international peace and security” is binding on all U.N. member states.

She acknowledged that such a move would probably be blocked in the council, implying that Russia would be the one to pose hurdles.

“I’m well aware that at this point such an effort is still likely to be vetoed, but we need to look for a way to keep pressing forward,” she said. “I met at length with [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov earlier today in Brussels. He was, as usual, very intent upon laying responsibility on all sides – and in particular on the opposition – but he also has recognized that we are not in a static situation, but a deteriorating one.”

Lavrov declined an invitation to attend the “Friends of Syria” discussions in Paris, saying they were not designed to promote dialogue and would only widen the gulf between Damascus and the opposition.

Moscow has become increasingly critical of the “Friends of Syria” concept, accusing the group of muscling in on the U.N. Security Council’s territory. It is especially unhappy about Western and Arab material support for the Syrian opposition.

On that sensitive issue, Clinton said in Paris that the U.S. was “expanding our communications, logistics, and other support for the Syrian opposition.”

The U.S. and Turkey may also create an “assistance hub” near the Syrian border, to help the Syrian opposition to “coordinate the collection and distribution of assistance to opposition groups inside Syria.”

President Obama, during a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in South Korea last month, agreed on the need to send communications equipment and other “non-lethal” aid to the opposition.

Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have indicated that they want to send weapons to the anti-government rebels, although the Obama administration remains leery.

“The GCC has played a clear leadership role in trying to address the terrible violence that’s happening in Syria,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said during a briefing Thursday. “Obviously, they’re going to make their own sovereign decisions moving forward. We’ve said, for our part, that we don’t believe in a further militarization of what’s going – of Syria.”

Some 9,000-10,000 people have been killed in the 13 months since the regime clamped down on anti-government protests, trigging a conflict that has since developed into a civil war.

A ceasefire brokered by former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan formally came into effect on April 12, and the U.N. Security Council two days later unanimously adopted resolution 2042, authorizing the deployment of observers to monitor compliance by all parties to conflict.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said in New York Thursday that the cessation of fighting “is incomplete, to say the least.”

“In the six days since this council adopted resolution 2042, we have seen the regime unleash yet another wave of horrific violence against the Syrian people,” she told reporters.

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