Diplomatic efforts to resolve Syria’s bloody crisis appeared to collapse Thursday with the failure of a U.N. Security Council resolution threatening sanctions against the Syrian regime and with slim chances that a U.N. monitoring mission would survive past this week.
The likely end to U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan’s monitoring mission – hamstrung from the start because of its small size and lack of access to sites of the worst violence – signaled that Syria’s 16-month-old conflict could slip into an even more militarized and deadly phase without outside observers to track atrocities in what’s edging closer to all-out civil war.
For a third time, Russia and China used their veto power to stop Security Council censures of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, arguing that the resolution unfairly put the onus on the government to halt the violence. Pakistan and South Africa abstained from the vote, also citing concerns that the resolution was too biased in favor of opposition forces.
To many close observers, the vote was irrelevant: The rebels’ increasingly sophisticated bombings and the apparent capture of Syrian border terminals – as well as the authorities’ ongoing campaign of shelling rebel-held residential areas – nixes any possibility of a diplomatic outcome. Rebels seized control Thursday of the main border crossing on the border with Iraq and another on the border with Turkey, news services reported, signaling that anti-Assad forces were consolidating gains in the countryside even as the regime continued to pummel parts of Damascus, the capital, with artillery barrages.
The Obama administration also seems to have concluded that diplomatic efforts are dead, as officials said they didn’t see the value in extending the mandate of Annan’s mission past its Friday expiration date. Russia had proposed a stripped-down resolution that only called for an extension of the mandate, but it ultimately decided against putting it to a vote.
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States might consider “a final, brief extension of the mission,” but she made it clear that the administration had little faith left in a diplomatic solution.
“The consequence of today’s action is that the situation will continue to deteriorate and that the best efforts of Kofi Annan and this council to stem the fighting and to launch a political process have not thus far succeeded,” Rice told reporters after the Security Council session.
The Obama administration’s position on Syria has been criticized as muddy – on one hand supporting Annan’s six-point plan for a negotiated end to the fighting while simultaneously echoing the opposition’s rejection of the notion that Assad would enact the real reforms needed for a smoother transition from power.
The U.S. government went a step further on Wednesday, bringing its own sanctions against the entire Syrian Cabinet, including the man Assad had named as his interlocutor in accordance with Annan’s demands that both sides identify negotiators.
The notoriously fractious Syrian opposition groups, plagued by internal ideological differences and a legitimacy deficit on the ground, so far haven’t named a figure to lead their side in transitional talks.
That’s a major concern of American diplomats, even as they tacitly cheer on rebel victories this week that could hasten Assad’s fall. Privately, State Department officials working Syria say they’re frustrated by the opposition’s failure to coalesce nearly a year after President Barack Obama explicitly called for Assad to step aside.
The resolution that the Security Council considered Thursday – a day behind schedule because of an insurgent bombing that killed top defense officials in Damascus – threatened sanctions against the Assad regime if it didn’t withdraw troops and stop the use of heavy weaponry within 10 days.
Although the harshest language was reserved for the Syrian government, the resolution also demanded that opposition forces halt humanitarian abuses and condemned a recent series of bombings, which presumably were carried out by rebel forces.
The latest blast targeted the national security headquarters in Damascus and killed Assad’s top two defense officials and wounded other security brass.
The U.N. ambassadors of some member states made sure to include their governments’ condemnations of Wednesday’s bombing, even as they upbraided Russia and China for blocking urgent diplomatic pressure against Assad.
One by one, outraged Security Council members lashed out at Russia and China for what they deemed a missed opportunity to save lives in a conflict that’s already left more than 16,000 people dead, according to figures compiled by human rights groups.
France warned that “history will show us the price the people in Syria and beyond will pay” for the council’s failed resolution. The United Kingdom dismissed the holdouts’ criticism that the resolution paved the way for “adopting a military resolution through the back door.”
Russia and China have sought to avoid a repeat of the Libyan experience of foreign intervention turning into a regime-change operation.
Critics say Russia and China’s insistence on a gradual negotiated solution only buys more time for a regime that’s shown no signs of enacting real reforms.
“We need to come together behind a simple proposition that the Syrian president is waging a brutal, murderous campaign against his own people,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
Asked whether the U.N. vote meant the Annan plan has failed, Carney said, “Thus far, yes. And the failure of the Security Council to support this resolution means that it can’t go forward.”