UN observer team suspends work in Syria
Los Angeles Times
BEIRUT - The United Nations' decision to suspend its observer mission in Syria could increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to comply with a faltering U.N. peace plan that many view as a last chance to avoid all-out civil war in the strife-torn Middle Eastern nation.
But the observer pullback announced Saturday could also put pressure on Russia, whose alliance with Assad has led to increasing tension with Washington. Moscow helped craft the peace initiative and is determined to keep it alive, knowing that its failure could accelerate demands for harsher international action.
The U.N. cited escalating violence in its decision to suspend the monitoring mission, a crucial component of special U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's plan.
The suspension of the observer mission _ and the possibility that Annan's entire effort may be on the verge of collapse _ may also be a blunt message to Assad, who Annan has said has the "first responsibility" to implement the peace process.
Few independent Syria-watchers believe that Assad could withdraw his troops and armor from populated areas and allow nonviolent protests, both mandates in the peace plan, and still hold on to power in the deeply divided nation of 23 million.
At the same time, the Annan plan has become somewhat of a lifeline for Assad, his autocratic rule threatened by a 15-month uprising that has cost more than 10,000 lives and gutted Syria's economy.
It has allowed his backers to argue, however unconvincingly, that Syria is amenable to a peaceful, internationally brokered truce and transition to a more representative government. The plan has provided some international cover for the Assad administration, despite widespread condemnation of his crackdown.
The Syrian opposition, always wary of the peace proposal, has insisted that Assad was only buying time and had no intention of implementing the plan beyond its initial, relatively painless, steps: agreeing to the presence of the U.N. observers, releasing some prisoners, granting visas to some foreign journalists and allowing humanitarian access to conflict zones.
Russia, which has twice led vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions denouncing Assad's crackdown, is frantically seeking to rescue the effort. Moscow wants to convene an international conference on the plan, but Washington has balked at its insistence that Iran, another close ally of Assad, be invited.
The plan has the firm backing of the Obama administration and its European and Arab allies. However, that alliance's stated goal _ the ouster of Assad - is not part of the plan, which vaguely calls instead for "an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people."
The U.S. and its allies seem to have adopted a strategy of sticking publicly with the plan until what many regarded as its inevitable failure. At that point, pressure would presumably mount on Moscow to support stiffer U.N.-backed action against Assad's government.
"We think it is important for us to give Kofi Annan and his plan the last amount of support that we can muster, because, in order to bring others into a frame of mind to take action in the Security Council, there has to be a final recognition that it's not working," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently.
Earlier in the month, in Stockholm, Clinton said she had informed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Assad's departure was not a "precondition," but "it should be an outcome" of any Syria plan.
U.S. officials have been seeking to enlist Russia's support for an internationally backed "transition" blueprint for a new government in Syria. The working model is the plan that resulted in the departure of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh after a year of protests.
Moscow, however, has said it would support only a proposal backed by the Syrian people and has publicly denied working on any kind of transition steps for the Syrian leadership. Moscow remains opposed to military intervention in Syria, regarding Western-led operations aimed at changing leadership such as those in Libya and Iraq as dubious exercises that cost Russia allies and increased global instability.
Insurgents and Syrian forces alike have violated the U.N. cease-fire, and diplomats have been unable to craft an alternative that would avert what many fear could be a sectarian-tinged bloodbath that could spread beyond Syria's borders and destabilize the volatile region. There is no other plan on the table.
In a statement Saturday, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, who heads the U.N. mission, cited "an intensification of armed violence across Syria over the past 10 days" that was raising the death toll and posing "significant risk" to the unarmed monitors.
"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push toward advancing military positions, is increasing the losses on both sides," the Norwegian general declared. "Innocent civilians, men, women and children, are being killed every day."
The observers will remain in Syria, and the U.N. left open the possibility that patrols and other operations could resume if the situation allowed.
The observers have been unable to stop the violence in Syria, though there was a lull when they arrived six weeks ago.
The monitors, however, have provided independent verification of the turmoil and carnage in Syria. Late last month, the U.N. team confirmed reports of a massacre of more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, in the town of Houla, an event that drew international outrage.
The almost 300-member observer team has had several close calls: Monitors have been shot at, attacked by a pro-government mob and at least twice had roadside bombs go off near their vehicles. The U.N. has reported no casualties among the observers, who are drawn from 60 member nations.
On Saturday, Syria gave no hint that the observer pullback would prompt Assad to make concessions on the peace plan. Instead, state media said the suspension in observer operations was caused by violence by "armed terrorist groups," the government's characterization of rebels seeking to topple Assad.
Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.