The massive suicide bombing in central Damascus Wednesday that killed prominent members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle underscored how a country already torn by months of violence is sinking deeper into instability. But an alarming deterioration in just the last week appears to have done little to move world powers closer to common ground on Syria.
In the wake of Wednesday’s bombing, the United Nations Security Council postponed until Thursday a vote on a resolution aimed at ending Syria’s violence and initiating a political transition. But comments from proponents and opponents of forceful UN action on Syria suggested little movement toward a compromise.
“The incident today makes clear that Assad is losing control, that violence is increasing rather than decreasing, and that all of our partners internationally need to come together and support a transition," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. He said the situation prompted President Obama to call Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently with the same message Mr. Carney gave the press: that Syria’s violence will not end until Assad steps down and paves the way to a political transition.
"We are seeing a situation that is getting worse and worse," Carney added – words that resembled Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's assessment earlier Wednesday that Syria is "spinning out of control."
The bombing killed the core of Assad’s “crisis unit” including the Syrian defense minister, Assad’s powerful brother-in-law, and a prominent general and former defense minister. Fighting raged in Damascus as the regime unleashed helicopter gunships to go after what it said were the “criminal gangs” who had launched the attack.
Western powers, including the United States, favor a Security Council resolution that would authorize imposing sanctions on the Assad government if it did not quickly take concrete steps to curtail civilian casualties.
But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, which has blocked any council effort to impose punitive measures on Assad, said Wednesday’s attack on the core of the Assad regime – claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army – is further proof that imposing measures on Assad would be abetting the “terrorists” who are fighting him. He also said the UN has “no place” in supporting what he called a “revolution.”
"Adopting a resolution against this backdrop [of Wednesday bombing] would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Mr. Lavrov said. “ If we are talking about a revolution then the UN Security Council has no place in this."
In contrast to Western officials, who say failure by the international community to act is encouraging the violence, Lavrov told his Western counterparts that support for the rebels is only causing an escalation in bloodshed.
"Instead of calming the opposition, some partners are fostering a further escalation," he said. But he went on to call such a policy "a dead-end,” because, he said, “Assad will not go on his own, and our Western partners don't know what to do about that.”
At the UN Wednesday, China echoed Russia’s sentiments. "We condemn all kinds of terrorist actions," China's UN Ambassador Li Baodong told reporters. He said he still had hope the Security Council would be able to come to some agreement on Syria. China has joined Russia twice in vetoing resolutions on Syria over the 16 months of rising violence.
Given the hardened positions expressed Wednesday, it was unclear how the council might yet eke out a compromise.
US diplomats involved in council talks said the sessions were “useful” but could not be described as negotiations – suggesting little movement by anyone. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said Russia offered no new ideas for bridging the powers’ gaps at the meetings.
Some UN officials with close knowledge of the deliberations said they still had hope that the UN’s special envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan, had found a formula for a viable compromise in his discussions with Russian President Putin. “He’s pretty clever at devising some way out in these situations,” one official said, “so we’ll see if he’s come up with something this time.”
But with some Russian news organizations reporting that Moscow is prepared to cast another veto, the international community may again find itself frozen and stuck on the sidelines as Syria careens towards chaos.