Speaking on the eve of the end of her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton on Thursday urged Iran and Russia to curb steps that may end up in the Syrian civil war spilling beyond Syria’s borders and resulting in a regional catastrophe.
Clinton told reporters that Iran has been sending more combatants and sophisticated weapons in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been engaged in an increasingly desperate and bloody, 22-month battle with rebels who are seeking to take over the country which has been ruled by the Assad family since 1970.
Clinton also expressed her objections to Russia’s continued aid to Assad, which includes financial support. She said, however, that she was not expecting Moscow to favor Assad’s departure any time soon.
At the same time, the departing Secretary of State had nothing but praise for the head of Syria’s main opposition coalition, Mouaz Alkhatib, who said this week that he was ready to hold talks with Assad representatives outside Syria if the government released tens of thousands of detainees.
“I thought he was not only courageous but smart in saying that if certain conditions are met we will begin discussing a political transition because you have to you know make it clear that there will be something other than hardened fighters when this conflict finally ends,” Clinton said. “Otherwise, it might not ever end in the foreseeable future.”
Clinton would not comment on reports that Israel had bombed targets in Syria on Wednesday.
She said she expected that the civil war in Syria, which has already claimed the lives of more than 60 thousand, will only intensify in the near future, and may spread beyond Syria’s borders.
“I personally have been warning for quite some time of the dangers associated with an increasingly lethal civil war and a potential proxy war,” Clinton told a small group of reporters she was meeting one day before she is replaced by Senator John Kerry.
“Therefore, I think it’s incumbent on those nations that have refused to be constructive players to reconsider their positions because the worst kind of predictions of what could happen internally and spilling over the borders of Syria are certainly within the realm of the possible now,” Clinton added.
Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources have reported that Israeli jets on Wednesday bombed a convoy of weapons destined for the Hezbollah near the Lebanese-Syrian border. Syria denied these reports, saying instead that the bombing target was a military research center northwest of Damascus, 8 miles from the Lebanese border. The Syrian press office released a tape showing some structure going up in flames, suggesting this was the attacked facility, but it is impossible to tell from the tape what is burning and where.
Syria warned it was planning a “surprise” retaliation against Israel. The pro-Assad Hezbollah, which is financed and largely commanded by Iran, vowed to stand by the embattled Syrian president.
Secretary Clinton said that the United States was worried that Iran had recently increased its support for Assad.
“It appears that they may be increasing that involvement and that is a matter of great concern to us,” she said.
“I think the numbers [of combatants] have increased,” she remarked. “There is a lot of concern that they are increasing the quality of the weapons, because Assad is using up his weaponry. So it’s numbers and it’s materiel.”
Regarding the Russian involvement, Clinton said: “We have reason to believe that the Russians continue to supply financial and military assistance in the form of equipment. They [have been] doing it in the recent past.”
Moscow has blocked three Security Council resolutions calling for the end of Assad’s rule and an end to the bloodshed inn Syria.
Clinton was skeptical about Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s comment this week that Assad’s chances of staying in power were growing “smaller and smaller.” She does not think it means Russia’s support for the tyrant is also diminishing.
“On the Russians, Medvedev included, we have heard rhetoric before over the last now nearly two years that we thought provided an opening … unfortunately, all of that rhetoric has failed to translate into changes in Russian policy,” she said.