Paralysed world clings to Annan's failing Syria plan

LONDON Tue Jun 5, 2012 2:27pm BST

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LONDON (Reuters) - Kofi Annan hints his peace plan for Syria is going nowhere, but divided world powers have yet to agree on other ideas for halting the carnage or coaxing President Bashar al-Assad into talks on his political demise.

Syrian rebels have abandoned any commitment to a ceasefire the U.N.-Arab League envoy declared on April 12. After an initial lull, Assad's forces never respected the truce despite the watching eyes of a U.N. observer team now 300 strong.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao urged all nations on Wednesday to support Annan's mediation, the U.N. monitors and a political solution in Syria.

But no inkling of such a solution has appeared. Syria faces the grim possibility that violence will decide its fate.

Assad's police state, in which his minority Alawite sect controls the army, security agencies and swathes of the economy, is trying to crush a 15-month-old popular uprising and now an armed rebellion driven by the Sunni Muslim majority.

For both sides, it has become a struggle for survival into which they may now be locked, whatever perplexed outsiders do.

After the Houla massacre in which 49 children and 34 women were among at least 108 people slain on May 25, public pressure is mounting for the world to do something, anything, for Syria's bloodied civilians, despite the questionable utility of harsh sanctions and the many risks of military intervention.

"(Annan) and many others have warned of Syria descending into a bloody, protracted sectarian civil war. We may be there already," Ahmad Fawzi, the envoy's spokesman, said on Monday.

Annan himself "feels that perhaps the time has come, or is approaching, when the international community has to review ... the crisis in Syria and decide what needs to be done to ensure implementation of the six-point plan," Fawzi said.

RUSSIAN ROLE

The former U.N. chief will brief the Security Council on Thursday, but big powers, unable to agree on a more robust approach, may ask him to pursue his thankless task for now.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told Reuters on Monday that Annan's proposals remain "central" to a solution.

The United States and its European and Arab friends are trying to persuade Russia to back sterner action against Assad or to lean on him to commit to an agreed political transition similar to arrangements under which Yemen's veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh formally relinquished power earlier this year.

"Assad's departure does not have to be a precondition, but it should be an outcome so that the people of Syria have a chance to express themselves," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday, slightly softening Washington's stance.

Moscow, which played a crucial role in securing Assad's verbal acceptance of Annan's plan two months ago, has signalled it is open to a Yemen-style solution for its Syrian ally.

Western officials view Russian cooperation as vital for the Annan plan and for any putative, and as yet remote, U.N.-backed moves to arm Syrian insurgents, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar advocate, or to act militarily against Assad - policies that wary Western governments have yet to embrace themselves.

Western voters are weary of a decade of costly entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan and their leaders, focused on economic troubles at home, see no simple fix for Syria's plight.

Russia and China, wary of setting precedents that might comfort opponents at home, have twice vetoed Western-backed Security Council resolutions on Syria. They remain set against forced political change or foreign intervention which they say would worsen the conflict and further destabilise the region.

Assad's government, allied to Iran and Lebanon's armed Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, is hostile to Israel and at odds with Turkey and most of the Arab world, especially U.S.-aligned states such as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-ruled Gulf partners.

Nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees have already spilled into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan after more than a year of bloodshed which the United Nations says has cost more than 10,000 lives.

SAVING THE PATIENT

Clinton will discuss Syria with Western and Arab officials in Istanbul on Wednesday before a counter-terrorism conference.

She has already talked by telephone with Annan and her Russian counterpart on efforts to bring "more pressure to bear on Assad, on the regime, to comply with all six aspects of ... the Annan plan, including a democratic or political transition".

State Department spokesman Mark Toner also said Washington was concerned about the conflict becoming more militarised after rebels said they were no longer bound by the ceasefire. "We don't believe this is the right way forward," he said.

Yet Assad has brushed off Western measures, from sanctions to the expulsion of Syrian diplomats, blaming the violence racking his country on foreign-backed Islamist "terrorists".

In a defiant speech on Sunday, he compared himself to a surgeon who must get blood on his hands to "save the patient".

Next day French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius predicted that "the Assad regime will end up collapsing under the weight of its own crimes" - but that could take a while given that Syria's still cohesive military heavily outguns the rebels.

Even if sanctions and economic turmoil empty his treasury, Assad may well fight on, more like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi than Yemen's Saleh, who left office after months of international pressure in return for immunity from prosecution.

"The Assad regime is not divided like Saleh's was," said Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute's branch in Qatar. "They stand and fall together ... because if one card goes they all go."

(Additional reporting by Regan Doherty in Doha, Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Gareth Jones in Berlin, Arshad Mohammed in Stockholm, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Reuters Beirut bureau; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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