President Barack Obama telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to discuss escalating violence in Syria after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned the country was "rapidly spinning out of control." There appeared to be no breakthrough.
The White House said Obama and Putin "noted the differences our governments have had on Syria" but "agreed on the need to support a political transition as soon as possible that achieves our shared goal of ending the violence and avoiding a further deterioration of the situation." But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian reporters that "differences in approaches remain that concern practical steps in achieving a settlement."
The apparent stalemate matters because Russia (abetted by China) has blocked efforts at the U.N. Security Council to adopt a blueprint designed to end the violence in Syria. Moscow has long supported President Bashar al-Assad, whose 16-month crackdown on the opposition to his regime has left more than 10,000 dead, according to outside observers. The Council had been slated to vote Wednesday on a new resolution imposing fresh sanctions on Syria. But that vote was postponed at the request of former secretary-general Kofi Annan, who has been acting as an international mediator in the crisis--thus far with few signs of success.
"We're working with our partners up at the United Nations in New York trying to bring about the consensus that we believe is absolutely necessary," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. "We call on our friends and our partners internationally to recognize that Assad is a spent force in terms of history. He will not be a part of Syria's future" Carney said. "And the best possible course of action for every country with an interest in the region and in the future of the Syrian people is to ally with the Syrian people and support a transition that is inclusive and allows for the establishment of a process and a democratic future for Syria."
The comments came amid escalating deadly violence, including a bomb attack that killed the country's defense minister. Official Syrian media blamed the blast on a suicide bombing. But a U.S. official told Yahoo News on condition of anonymity that American intelligence was still seeking independent confirmation of that claim.
The bombing, as well as deadly clashes in Syria's capital Damascus, led Panetta to warn that the country may be ripping itself apart.
"The violence there has only gotten worse and the loss of lives has only increased, which tells us that this is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control," he said at a Pentagon press conference.
Asked about concerns regarding Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, Panetta replied: "It's something that 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."
"We, the United States, are closely monitoring Syria's proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities, and we believe that Syria's chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control," Carney said.
Earlier, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor warned that time was running out for a political transition in Syria.
"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," he said.
Republican critics of President Barack Obama—notably Sen. John McCain—have called for a harder line, and even for Washington to arm the rebels. The administration has said that it is providing communications and other aid short of weapons, and warned that arming the insurgency would only escalate the violence and risk seeing lethal assistance fall into the wrong hands. But Obama aides have acknowledged deep frustration, and even anger, with the role Moscow and Beijing have played.