As Syrian conflict intensifies, UN prepares to extend its mission

Today's assassination of two top government officials in Damascus raises the stakes of Syria's conflict yet again. Will the UN vote to continue its observer mission, or give it more teeth?

Bassem Tellawi/AP
A UN observers vehicle arrives at the site where a suicide attack hit the National Security building in Damascus, Syria site in Damascus, Syria, July 5. The UN vote to extend its mission comes on the heels of a suicide bombing at a government building that killed Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Army chief Assef Shawkat, who is reportedly President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law.

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Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria are plodding along, with the United Nations Security Council expected to vote today on a resolution to extend the UN observer mission in Syria. Meanwhile, the conflict has passed yet another milestone: its first high-level assassination. 

The vote comes on the heels of a suicide bombing at a government building that killed Defense Minister Daoud Rajha and Deputy Army chief Assef Shawkat, who is reportedly President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law. It is the first major assassination of the 17-month conflict, and a possible turning point for the opposition in attacking major installations of the Assad government. 

The UN's observer mission expires in two days, and the Security Council has long been divided over whether or not the new agreement should include sanctions against the Syrian government. Russia, a longtime ally of the Assad regime, says it will not support the enactment of Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of sanctions and military intervention. Russian diplomats acknowledge, however, there is always the possibility of last-minute negotiations, reports the Associated Press. China has backed Russia in blocking previous resolutions proposed by the US and European Security Council members.

As fighting in Damascus blazed on for the third straight day yesterday – the heaviest fighting in the capital since the conflict began more than a year ago­ – diplomatic meetings in New York, Beijing, and Geneva focused on urging Russia and China to support the Western-backed resolution. The draft resolution on the table would allow Mr. Assad 10 days to withdraw troops and heavy weaponry currently deployed across Syria. If the Syrian government fails to do so, the Security Council would submit a new resolution pushing for sanctions, according to the BBC.

As Russia digs in its heels on Syria, hope for a unified international response to the violence is waning. On July 15, the International Committee of the Red Cross labeled the Syrian conflict a civil war for the first time. With world powers failing to come to an agreement on how to move forward on the Syria conflict, the opposition group, the Syrian National Council [SNC], says “we have other options,” according to the Monitor.

“What we are saying here is that if there is no possibility of counting on what is the legitimate mandate of the United Nations Security Council, then we have other options,” says Bassma Kodmani, head of foreign relations for the Syrian National Council (SNC) executive office. “If the door is closed in the face of the Syrian people, then we need to explore other scenarios.”

The SNC supports a Security Council resolution under Chapter Seven, and called this week’s vote a “very last chance to breathe life into the [Special Envoy Kofi] Annan peace plan.” More than 4,000 people have died in the four months since Mr. Annan’s plan, which calls for a cease-fire and political transition in Syria, was launched.

Many in the international community are frustrated with what they see as a lack of action in Syria and worried about this inaction putting further stress on an already fragile region. A Wall Street Journal editorial argues that the Obama administration has long contended that military intervention would push Syria into a civil war and kill thousands, but “the US hasn’t intervened and all this has happened.”  The violence has claimed at least 17,000 lives since it began in March 2011.

The Obama Administration touts its "smart diplomacy," but there must a Russian colloquialism for sucker. The US has turned a kleptocracy with oil and aging nukes into a diplomatic power broker in the Middle East with a veto over American action. The US should at least call the Russian bluff and pull the UN mission out. Its mandate was to monitor a cease-fire, but there isn't one to monitor.

The cost of US inaction carries a fast-rising price. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two of our closer Arab partners, are arming the rebels and eager to see Assad go. They'd rather defer to American leadership but may be forced to act more robustly on their own. The same goes for Turkey, which must deal with a refugee flood. Israel worries about the loose WMD and may act to secure it. The longer we fail to step in, the harder it becomes to shape the outcome in Syria. 

In an Op-Ed published in the China Daily titled “International Diplomacy’s 11th hour,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, adds that “the logic of war, in Syria, is becoming evidently more powerful than the logic of peace. The Syrian opposition talks about a revolution to topple the regime, while President Assad is maneuvering to stay in power, whatever the cost.”

As the civil war burgeons, reconciliation is becoming more and more difficult to imagine. Mr. Trenin warns that if the five world powers voting on the Security Council resolution this week are unable to find common ground, not only are there stark implications for Syria, “but the prospects for future conflict management in the world, from Iran to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, will become much bleaker.”

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