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Aleppo on the verge of full-scale battle as UN vote on Syria looms

The UN warned that the long-building battle for Aleppo is 'about to start' in earnest.  Kofi Annan blasted UN Security Council inaction on Syria as he stepped down as peace envoy yesterday.

Abdel Razzak al-Halabi/Reuters
Members of the Free Syrian Army ride on pick-up trucks in Aleppo's district of Salah Edinne, August 1.

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The United Nations peacekeeping chief yesterday announced that the big showdown in Aleppo between the Syrian Army and rebel forces is imminent, as hopes for international mediation in Syria sank to their lowest level yet with the resignation of the diplomat charged with implementing a peace plan.

The Army and rebels have been fighting fierce, small-scale clashes in Aleppo for three weeks as both sides ramp up for an all-out battle for the city.

"The focus is now on Aleppo, where there has been a considerable buildup of military means, and where we have reason to believe that the main battle is about to start," said Herve Ladsous, under-secretary-general for UN peacekeeping operations, CNN reports. (See the Monitor's report of the street battles in Aleppo last week.) 

Cellphone service to the city has been cut off, making it difficult to discern fully what is happening on the ground, but Army planes have been shelling parts of the city and rebels have seized tanks from a military base, turning them on regime troops. Capt. Ammar Al-Wawi of the Free Syrian Army told CNN that the Army has also been using fighter jets on sections of the city.

Diplomatic attempts to halt the violence, already weak, were dealt a further blow with the resignation yesterday of UN special envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, who voiced his frustration with the competition and blame game that has paralyzed the UN Security Council as he stepped down, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"The increasing militarization on the ground and the clear lack of unity in the Security Council have fundamentally changed the circumstances for the effective exercise of my role," he said. "The bloodshed continues, most of all because of the Syrian government's intransigence and continuing refusal to implement the six-point plan, and also because of the escalating military campaign of the opposition—all of which is compounded by the disunity of the international community." 

He is not the only world leader who seems to be done with trying to work out a solution to the Syrian conflict through the proper international channels: Security Council President Gerard Araud yesterday said that the group should turn its focus to humanitarian issues, CNN reports. "The divisions in the council are very deep. I think its irreconcilable in political terms," he said. "Maybe we should work on [the] humanitarian situation, which is becoming disastrous. At least the Security Council would be useful," Mr. Araud added.

"The risk is that some countries have drawn the conclusion that it is over, that the Council is impotent on Syria," Araud said, according to CBS News

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Britain will begin providing "a great deal" of "practical" support for the opposition forces in coming weeks, although he ruled out providing weapons. Britain was one of the countries backing a mediated solution to the Syrian conflict, but Mr. Hague said that the UN had not been able to "handle it well," BBC reports. 

Mr. Annan should not be blamed for his failure to bring about any progress in Syria, the Guardian argues in an editorial. The so-called Annan peace plan, backed strongly by council members, it says, was doomed to fail from the start because neither the Army nor the increasingly militarized opposition ever seriously considered pausing their assault. There is no point in Annan's successor picking up its mantle, the Guardian writes.

Try as one might to concoct a scenario where the six-point Annan plan for a negotiated political transition may one day be resuscitated – a successor will be found as envoy and, as Annan says, the plan is the security council's, not his – it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his resignation marks the end of diplomacy in Syria. It is a landmark moment.

Some argued almost from the start that Annan, one of the world's most seasoned diplomats, only made things worse. The means, in the form of a ceasefire, offered loyalist troops a respite, while the end, a political process became a free get-of-jail-card for Bashar Assad. The Annan plan, it was said, exemplified the gap between expectation and delivery that Assad exploited with murderous intent. 

The undoing of the Annan plan surely lay not so much with the plan itself – there never was any other real alternative to stop a brutally repressed civilian insurrection turning into a civil war – but in the UN security council that approved it.

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the trouble with Annan's peace plan, which included a cease-fire and a political transition plan that would include some members of the Assad regime in the next government, is that it "came too late." Compounding that was the "mounting feud" between the Western council members – US, Britain, and France – and Russia, which had the two sides vociferously opposing each other at the council, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"I don't believe that Kofi Annan can be blamed for hoping that Assad might have behaved differently," Mr. Cordesman said. "But the fact is that this entire effort came late. The whole idea that observers could keep the peace was very, very optimistic from the start."

Despite the UN's unquestionable failure to bring about any progress on the ground in Syria and the growing belief that the window for diplomacy is firmly closed, the General Assembly is preparing to vote today on a resolution "reprimanding" Syria for using heavy weapons on civilians, according to the WSJ.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata, reporting from the outskirts of Aleppo, reports that "the rebels take very little interest in what is going on at the UN. The fighters on the front lines in the battle to wrest Syria's largest city definitively from the control of Assad's regime say the UN has proven itself of little help to their cause."

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