Only faint hope for UN 'last chance' plan to avert civil war in Syria

The UN Security Council has approved a statement urging Syria to halt all violence by next Tuesday or 'further steps' will be taken. But what those further steps are is not clear.

Martial Trezzini/AP
Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan attends a meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously called on Syria Thursday to “urgently and visibly” halt all violence by an April 10 deadline in what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said was the “last chance” to save the country from civil war.

Meanwhile, a UN team was in Damascus Thursday to negotiate the deployment of a mission to monitor the potential cease-fire. 

After months of failed attempts to act on Syria, the Security Council approved a nonbinding presidential statement that threatens “further steps” if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad fails to implement the peace plan that Mr. Ban’s special envoy, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, concluded with President Assad last week.

The statement, sponsored by the United States, the council’s rotating president, also calls on all other parties to cease “all forms” of armed action within 48 hours of the government pulling back from cities and ceasing its attacks.

The council’s action marked a modest unblocking of the diplomatic logjam that has stymied for more than six months Western attempts to secure international action against Assad. Russia and China have twice vetoed more consequential council resolutions on Syria, with Russia vowing to block any resolution the council’s three other permanent members – the US, Britain, and France – might use to intervene in the Syrian crisis.

Russia accuses the Western powers of going beyond the mandate of last year's UN resolution on Libya – which Russia supported – to launch the NATO air campaign against the forces of Muammar Qaddafi. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly said that Russia would not leave any doors open to armed intervention in Syria by the West.

Again on Thursday, Mr. Lavrov warned that Russia would not approve any council action that contains “any ultimatums or threats” aimed at the Assad government. And there was some indication that Russia was getting its way in a council anxious to weigh in on the Syria crisis. The statement approved Thursday “urges” Assad to comply with the Annan plan, whereas an earlier draft said the council “demands” compliance.

That left unclear just what the council might be able to approve in the way of “further steps” in the event of a breakdown in implementation of the Annan plan.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, speaking to reporters in Paris, said that if the Assad government does not open the country to the 200-observer monitoring mission called for in the Annan plan, or if it acts to block the mission’s work, then Syria will quickly return to the council’s agenda.

Mr. Juppé expressed little confidence that the plan will work, insisting that Assad is “deceiving” the international community. The Arab League already had a team of observers in Syria last year that was pulled out over accusations that Assad was actively undermining the observers’ work.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly by videoconference Thursday, Mr. Annan said violence had yet to cease in Syria, and he called on all sides to silence their guns now. Ban said that violence was “getting worse” in the days before the planned cease-fire.

Some regional experts are concerned that the Annan cease-fire plan allows Assad to buy time and to eventually blame the opposition for a return to violence.

To ensure some accountability from Assad, some UN diplomats are calling for a quick assessment of whether or not Assad is implementing the plan. They want Annan to brief the Security Council as of April 11 on whether or not Assad had complied with the April 10 deadline for ceasing government violence.

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