Syria's escalating violence leads U.N. to suspend mission
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, of the United Nations observer mission in Syria, said his team would reassess conditions daily before resuming operations.
BEIRUT — The United Nations suspended its monitoring mission in Syria on Saturday because of the rapidly escalating violence, leaving a U.N. peace plan for the country in tatters and raising fears a slide into all-out civil war may be unavoidable.
U.N. officials said the monitors would not be withdrawn but were being locked down in Syria's most contested cities, unable to conduct patrols. While the decision to suspend the work was made chiefly to protect the unarmed monitors, the unstated purpose appeared to be to force Russia to intervene and ensure the observers are not the targets of Syrian forces or their sympathizers.
Russia has opposed Western intervention and, by some accounts, continues to arm the forces of President Bashar Assad.
For President Obama, the suspension of the observers' activities, unless reversed quickly, could signal the failure of the latest effort by the West to reach a diplomatic solution and ease Assad from power.
The Obama administration appealed to the government in Damascus to uphold its commitments under the U.N. plan even as the head of the U.N. mission in Syria said "significant risks" to the safety of team members meant they would no longer be monitoring its observance.
Calling the moment a "critical juncture," administration spokesman Tommy Vietor said the United States has begun consulting allies "regarding next steps toward a Syrian-led political transition."
"The sooner this transition takes place, the greater the chance of averting a lengthy and bloody sectarian civil war," he said.
But with the international community paralyzed by indecision and divided over how to address the violence in strategically sensitive Syria, it was not apparent what the next steps would be.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, a Norwegian who is chief of the observer mission, said the 300-strong team would reassess conditions daily and would resume operations "when we see the situation fit for us to carry out our mandated activities."
His gloomy assessment seemed to hold out little hope that would happen soon, however. Citing the "intensification of armed violence across Syria over the past 10 days," Mood said it was clear neither the government nor the opposition was interested in adhering to the cease-fire the observers were there to monitor.
"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push toward advancing military positions, is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men, women and children, are being killed every day," Mood said in Damascus.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, said it had informed Mood it understood the U.N. observers' decision and blamed rebels for the escalation in fighting.
With no observers in the field to act as a check on excesses, fresh supplies of weapons flowing to rebel fighters and the government stepping up an offensive to crush opposition strongholds, the prognosis is for even greater bloodshed as the uprising against Assad's rule entered its 16th month, analysts said.
"On the ground, you're going to see the regime and the opposition really going for each other," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The gloves are going to come off, and this will drive up death tolls as the international community continues to look at the situation and tries to decide to what degree it wants to get involved or not."
The United States and its allies nonetheless hope a diplomatic solution to the crisis may be possible. The conflict is expected to dominate talks between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Mexico on Monday.
"The problem is that if we do nothing and Syria explodes, we have a broader conflict in the Middle East," a senior U.S. diplomat said last week, adding, "But our options aren't any better than they were a year ago."
The U.N. observers had been the foundation of a six-point peace plan that Kofi Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general and the special envoy to Syria, had sought to hammer out with the consent of Assad and his foreign sponsors, including Russia and Iran.
Both of those countries have huge stakes in the outcome: Russia has a military base in Syria and has long used Assad as an instrument to project influence in the region, and the Syrian government is Iran's only real ally in the region. But Russia in particular has frozen strong action, complaining the West went beyond its humanitarian mandate when it aided the overthrow, and ultimate death, of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya last year. Opposition groups say more than 14,000 civilians and rebels have been killed since the Syrian uprising began.
Abdul-Rahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has said more than 3,400 Syrian soldiers and pro-government militiamen also have been killed.
In Syria, opposition activists called the observer mission a sham that had only deflected attention from the failure of the world powers to stop Assad's forces from killing civilians.
"Their presence is just like their absence," Mohammed el-Muetassem bi'Allah, 18, an activist from Homs, said of the observers. "They are incapable of stopping the violence."
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.