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You can't say it enough: Syria is really different from Libya

Syria's war is as violent today as at any point of the over year-long conflict, and a UN peace plan spearheaded by Kofi Annan is in tatters. But that doesn't spell military intervention.

By Staff writer / May 31, 2012

Women take part in a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and to protest against the killing of at least 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla last Friday, in Cairo on Thursday, May 31.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

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Syrian rebel leaders have declared a UN peace plan for the country to be a failure, joining a chorus of international opinion in agreement.

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There's good reason for that. Syria's civil war rages as hot or hotter as it has at any point since the uprising erupted early last year. President Bashar al-Assad may be ringed with international sanctions, but his security forces, from the Army to the special police, remain united and behind him. Pockets of Syrian territory are outside of government control, but not vast enclaves. Troops move freely around the country.

The Houla massacre last week, with at least 108 civilians murdered by militiamen alleged to be loyal to Mr. Assad (the BBC has published satellite images that make a convincing case of major Syrian government troop movements around the city at the time of the murders), has heightened the sense of crisis at the UN and world capitals.

The remaining option would appear to be military action designed to remove Assad from power. But the Obama administration appears to be backing away from that position, a consequence of the dawning reality of the challenges and steadfast Chinese and Russian opposition to any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) action.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, gave a series of interviews yesterday where she framed current diplomatic measures so far. On Twitter, she outlined three "mutually exclusive" scenarios for Syria. Cleaning the Twitter abbreviations from her language, she wrote: "First and best: Syria wakes up, stops killing, adheres to its obligations under multiple UNSC resolutions. Not a high probability. Second possible outcome – Russia and China need to agree – UNSC and international community assume responsibilities, exert pressure on Assad. Third and worst: violence intensifies, spills over, exploits sectarian fissures. UNSC unity gone. Annan plan gone. Most probable now."

That "most probable" is due to the fact that Russia, in particular, has shown no appetite for a UNSC resolution calling for military action. And she appears to say the US will not act without a UN mandate – "Russia and China must agree."

Her analysis is reasonable given events and tracks with the views of many knowledgeable military and regional analysts. More surprising, perhaps, was that she publicly acknowledged these facts. It's one thing to know you probably won't act without Russian approval. It's another to remove the seed of doubt that could be useful in negotiating some kind of more robust action down the line.

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