WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a cease-fire barely holding and the deployment of unarmed foreign observers expected to ease but not end months of violence, world powers are still struggling to find a longer-term strategy for Syria.
After heavy diplomatic wrangling, the United Nations Security Council on Saturday finally approved the deployment of what could be several hundred monitors amid reports of sporadic ongoing fighting.
In theory, the world’s most powerful countries, the government of President Bashar al-Assad and much of the Syrian opposition have all signed up to a multipoint plan formulated by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan. But the reality remains much more complex.
While Moscow and Beijing have repeatedly said they want to avoid a Libya-style externally backed regime change, the United States, Britain and France still say they want Assad gone.
“The main focus at the moment is the ... rapid deployment of monitors,” said one Western official on condition of anonymity. “That’s a priority, but it’s not the only one ... at the end of the day, do not see a future for Syria with Assad in charge. We are in this for the long haul.”
But officials concede they have few immediate tools with which to make that happen. Even a U.S. plan to provide “nonlethal” support to opposition fighters could end up being shelved, some suspect, largely because the rebels remain so disunited and ineffective.
U.S. pressure, insiders say, has already deterred Saudi Arabia and Qatar from making good on long-running talk they might provide weapons.
For now, Annan, Western powers and their Arab allies say Assad remains in breach of much of the peace plan. Privately, many Western diplomats worry his strategy may be to give just enough to drive a wedge between them and a much more reluctant Russia and China.
“The game for the weekend is watching whether the ceasefire holds and the monitors are approved,” said another Western official. “After that it gets more complicated.”
The most realistic immediate hope, officials say, would be that Assad’s forces cease use of heavy weaponry.
But if an earlier Arab league monitoring attempt in Syria - or other previous similar missions in Sri Lanka and Kosovo - are anything to go by, unarmed observers might struggle to stop killings, abductions and use of snipers.
Certainly, few believe Syria will genuinely follow through to withdraw troops from urban areas or allow peaceful protest. For world powers, the true challenge will come if the monitors report a fall in violence but accuse Syria of ignoring other areas of Annan’s plan.
At that stage, Western officials say they would return to the Security Council with a much stronger resolution, likely based on drafts previously rejected by Russia and China. That could include much tighter sanctions and perhaps even internationally protected “humanitarian corridors.”
Their hope would be that Moscow and Beijing, having invested their own diplomatic capital in Annan, would lose patience with Assad and back tougher action. But some doubt that will happen.
On Friday, a Russian news agency reported Moscow had decided to keep a warship permanently stationed off the Syrian coast “on a permanent basis.” While another Russian official said the move had “nothing to do” with events in Syria, it appeared a direct challenge to any foreign states still mulling intervention.
Others, however, believe Russia could yet abandon Assad if given guarantees that its interests - particularly access to the Tartus naval base - were respected. Diplomats say senior Russian officials have briefed foreign counterparts that they ultimately expect him to fall and be replaced with another similar member of the Alawite minority.
That would still not be enough to either meet the requirements of the Annan plan nor the demands of Western powers.
Privately, however, some officials already wonder how realistic their regime change goals might be. At the heart of the policy challenge, they say, is Syria’s opposition - widely regarded as chaotic even compared to Libya’s notoriously poorly coordinated rebels.
“Your problem is that they are still a very disparate array of groups,” said the second Western official. “You have to be sure you are not doing more harm than good.”
With some reports opposition fighters themselves may have broken the ceasefire, keeping them to the Annan plan could also be a challenge.
“It’s going to be a question of the opposition demonstrating that it’s peaceful so that he (Assad) will start to withdraw,” said another Western diplomat. “Now, if none of that works, we’re back to where we were.”
Turkey, analysts say, could yet send forces into Syria to create a buffer zone if cross-border firing and refugee flows continue. But, in general, officials say foreign powers have little appetite for military action. Some believe the United States in particular may be girding itself for a much longer game.
“The policy of this administration is much more about looking at where you want to be in three or four years time and then working out how you get there than it is about managing the here and now,” said Jon Alterman, a former U.S. State Department official and now chair of strategy at the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“In the longer term, there is a feeling that sanctions will have an effect, that China and particularly Russia can be persuaded to move their position. In the short term, there are real limits to what can be done.”
(Corrects name of naval base in paragraph 16 to Tartus)
Reporting By Peter Apps; Editing by Will Dunham