As the United Nations peace plan for Syria flounders toward failure, a U.S.-Russian blame game has begun, increasing the odds that violence the UN says has killed more than 10,000 people will continue.
The Americans, skeptical from the start about the chances of success for UN envoy Kofi Annan’s strategy, will be able to argue that they were right all along. Russia, a longtime ally of Syria that wrote the April 21 Security Council resolution authorizing the mission of 300 observers, is blaming terrorists for violating the cease-fire pact.
The finger-pointing threatens to dim any hopes that Russia and the U.S. can unite behind a plan to ease Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of power. With Russia and Iran arming the Syrian regime, and Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states supporting opposition forces, the stalemate is likely to prolong the violence, said two Obama administration officials. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.
“While the blame game has started before the Annan Plan was put in place, it is likely to escalate as the key outside stakeholders are more concerned about their face-saving operations than with working out a common strong position on resolution of the crisis,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst at IHS Global Insight.
Both sides will seek to draw on evidence from the ground to make their arguments before Annan formally declares his plan dead. Judgment day may come on July 21, when the 90-day observer mission ends, or sooner if any of the unarmed monitors is killed or injured in a conflict in which the opposition is increasingly relying on tactics such as suicide bombings.
“The concern here is that we still have the regime, on a daily basis, firing on innocents,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on May 18. “So they are leading in creating this climate that is enabling other kinds of violence, as well.”
Security forces killed 40 people yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group. The state news agency Sana said 19 people were killed across the country by “armed groups,” including an officer and his 13- year-old child shot on their way to school in a Damascus suburb.
Sergei Lavrov, who was re-appointed Russia’s foreign minister after Vladimir Putin was elected president, has blamed Assad’s opponents for the violence. He points to “daily reports of terrorist acts, explosions and attacks involving the Syrian Free Army and various terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda.”
“Let’s not forget external players that finance and arm combat groups and squads,” Lavrov told reporters May 23. “In my view their goal is obvious: the sabotage of Annan’s peace plan.”
Russia will be able to draw ammunition to frame its case from a UN investigation that documents human rights abuses by armed opposition groups, as well as by Assad’s security forces.
The report, which says at least 207 people died between February and May 10, was published yesterday by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria and draws on interviews with 214 victims and witnesses.
The investigators, who weren’t permitted into the country, describe how entire families were killed in their homes by Assad’s forces. The opposition was found to have captured and tortured soldiers and used children as messengers for life- threatening deliveries into Turkey.
The report describes actions by increasingly well-organized fighters planting mines, making homemade bombs and putting nails in pipes with explosive powder. There are six documented cases of explosions in which civilians were killed. While the commission said it wasn’t able to verify who was responsible, it listed the bombings under abuses committed by anti-government forces.
One problem with the Annan plan is that that the U.S. and Russia seem to see it as a tool to reach different ends, Gevorgyan, the Russia analyst, said in an e-mail.
“The trouble is that Russia and China see the current Annan plan as more of an opportunity to resuscitate the current Syrian setup, with some modification, while the West sees the road map as an orderly and quick regime change plan,” Gevorgyan said.
President Barack Obama’s administration is reluctant to press Russia to stop supporting Assad, the two officials said, because it wants to avoid a confrontation with Putin so soon after he took office and because it puts a higher premium on gaining Russian support for halting Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons research.
At the same time, the officials said, tensions with Pakistan have increased the need for U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan to use supply routes through former Soviet republics in Central Asia where Russia still has influence.
As the Annan plan’s deadline nears, the spiraling violence raises the stakes if it fails, said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“No one believes in the plan, but no one wants it to fail, because if it fails, the emperor is proven to have had no clothes, and that requires the powers to come up with an alternative, which no one wants to do,” Miller said in a telephone interview.
Once the plan is formally recognized as a failure, he said, the discussion will shift to what should come next.
“That question has been asked and answered by the Obama administration,” Miller said. “They’re not prepared to intercede in a significant way. They’ll keep the pressure on the Assads with sanctions; they’ll covertly arm the opposition indirectly or directly; and they’ll keep the pressure up on the Russians and the Chinese. That’s it.”
Given the chasm between Russian and American goals and viewpoints, the likely outcome is more gridlock in the UN Security Council, said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a policy group.
Once the Annan plan is declared a failure, “I don’t see the political process at the end of it,” Tabler said.
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