On Wednesday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, came as close as any other American official has in recent months to declaring that envoy Kofi Annan's plan for a political transition in Syria has run its course, and that states may have little choice but to pursue military options outside of the U.N. Security Council.
"I think we may be beginning to see the wheels coming off this bus," Rice told reporters following a fruitless effort to persuade Russia to apply greater pressure through the Security Council on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt a reign of violence, which culminated in the mass killing of more than 100 Syrians in Houla on Friday.
In her comments to reporters after the meeting, Rice outlined three scenarios for where the Syrian crisis may be headed. The first, which she described as the least plausible, is that the Syrian government agrees to its commitment under the Annan plan. The second is that the Security Council, confronted with Syrian intransigence, agrees to apply greater political pressure on Syria, starting with the imposition of U.N. sanctions.
The most probable scenario, she added, is also the worst-case scenario.
"The violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies, it reaches a higher degree of severity, it involves countries in the region, it takes on increasingly sectarian forms, and we have a major crisis not only in Syria but in the region," Rice explained. "The council's unity is exploded, the Annan plan is dead, and this becomes a proxy conflict with arms flowing in from all sides. And members of this council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they're prepared to take action outside the Annan plan and the authority of this council."
It was hard to determine whether Rice's doomsday scenario signaled a real shift in U.S. policy on Syria or was primarily calculated to spook Russia into yielding to Western pressure and punishing its Syrian ally.
But Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, wasn't buying it.
Churkin told reporters that Western sanctions have already imposed hardships on the Syrian people and that it made no sense to saddle them with new U.N. measures. "Our attitude to sanctions, frankly, continues to be negative," he said.
Churkin also sought to turn the table on Western supporters of tougher measures against Damascus by blaming Syria's fragmented opposition movement for refusing to participate in political talks. In rebuking unspecified governments for continuing to encourage the resistance through the supply of weapons, he noted that the armed opposition fighters in Syria are "better and better equipped." Churkin also criticized the United States and other Western powers for expelling Syrian diplomats, saying that the action could be "misinterpreted" by armed opponents of the Syrian government as the West preparing to intervene militarily in Syria.
For his part, Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, denied his government's involvement in the weekend massacre, blaming "armed terrorists" seeking to foment sectarian violence in Syria and claiming that 26 Syrian security forces were killed battling them.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we in Syria are facing terrorist armed groups," he said.
Jaafari added that the Syrian government had established a national commission to investigate the violence and that they would announce their conclusion as early as Thursday.
"It was a heinous crime, appalling crime, unjustified and unjustifiable, and those who perpetrated this crime should be held accountable ... to Syrian justice," he said. "You will hear the results of this investigation and all of us will know for sure the identity of the perpetrators."
The Syrian envoy blasted the council's Western diplomats for pressing for additional sanctions, saying they should "stop escalating the situation" and halt their encouragement of "sanctions or bold and stern messages."
"This is not diplomacy, we are diplomats here, we are here to bridge differences," he declared.
Kofi Annan's deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno, sought to push back on talk of a military solution. He urged the council behind closed doors to remain united in their support for Annan's six-point peace plan, saying that political talks held the key to restoring "genuine peace and stability to the country."
"I believe that in the council there is an understanding that any sliding towards full-scale civil war in Syria would be a catastrophe," he told reporters after briefing the council via a video-conference link from Geneva. "Most importantly, all Syrians must convince themselves that guns cannot be the solution. A militarization of the conflict will bring enormous suffering to Syria."
But there were fears that the worsening violence in Syria might be the undoing of the Annan plan, whose success depends on the efforts of a small contingent of 300 unarmed blue helmets to enforce a largely broken ceasefire and help pave the way for political talks between the government and the opposition.
Herve Ladsous, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, warned the council that the personal risks to the monitors have been growing as their base of operations has spread throughout the country and armed terrorists elements have grown in strength, according to a council diplomat who attended the briefing.
Rice put it more bluntly. The others, she told the council behind closed doors, are like "300 sitting ducks in a shooting gallery, one IED away from a disaster.... We're just sitting here watching this movie in slow motion and we all know what's going to happen," according to a council diplomat who recounted her remarks.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch