Ever since the U.N. Security Council dispatched U.N. monitors to Syria to enforce Kofi Annan's wobbly cease-fire three months ago, the United States has repeatedly warned that it may pull them out if they were unable to advance Annan's six-point peace plan.
"No one should assume that the United States will agree to renew this mission at the end of 90 days," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said on April 21 after casting her vote to create the new mission. "If there is not a sustained cessation of violence, full freedom of movement for U.N. personnel and rapid meaningful progress on all other aspects of the six-point plan, then we must all conclude that this mission has run its course."
With the monitors mandate set to expire Friday, and a dramatic uptick in violence today, none of the conditions outlined by Rice have been met in Syria. And yet the United States and its European allies are seeking the adoption of a resolution as early as Wednesday afternoon that would renew the U.N. mission's mandate for at least another 45 days.
"Nobody really wants an abrupt shut down of the mission," said one U.N.-based diplomat, saying that Security Council members were searching for a plan to preserve the life of the mission for a few weeks if diplomatic efforts at the U.N. deadlocked. "We have always felt that the Americans don't have a Plan B" in the event that Annan's diplomatic track stalls.
Washington has calculated that it is worth giving Annan another shot to pursue a realigned diplomatic strategy that calls on the international community to apply greater pressure on the Syrian combatants to put down their arms, including through imposition of punitive measures. Following last week's killings in the town of Tremseh, Annan urged the council in a letter to "send a message to all that there will be consequences for non-compliance" with his peace plan.
The U.S.-backed resolution would change the configuration of the U.N. mission -- shifting its mission from monitoring the enforcement of a failed ceasefire agreement to prodding the two sides to agree to talks -- and it would threaten to impose sanctions on Syria within 10 days if the government failed to halt its shelling of residential towns and withdraw its heavy weapons from urban centers.
But Moscow has signaled that it will veto any resolution that threatens Damascus with sanctions, and accused the West of seeking to "blackmail" Russia by threatening to "refuse to extend the mandate of the observer mission" if it vetoes the West's sanctions resolution. Instead, Moscow has introduced its own draft resolution extending the life of Annan's diplomatic plan without any threat to punish those who violate its terms. Rice predicted Monday that Russia may not be able to secure the nine votes required for adoption of the resolution in the 15-nation council.
The diplomatic standoff heightened the possibility that both diplomatic initiatives may not survive the week, leaving the United States and its allies to judge where to bring a decisive end to Annan's plan or propose a technical extension to allow negotiations between the big powers to continue.
Earlier this week, Western diplomats were discussing the prospect of pressing for the adoption of a last minute, short resolution extending the mandate for 15 to 45 days, giving the big powers time to consider next steps. But Rice sounded a skeptical note.
By killing off the mission, the West could deprive Syria, and its Russian backers, of the fiction that diplomacy is advancing prospects for peace. But they would run the risk of being blamed for abandoning the Syrian people in their hour of need, and scrapping a mission that -- despite its shortcomings -- has provided the council with its clearest window into events unfolding on the ground.
So far, Washington's European allies appear reluctant to shut down a mission that while restricted has proven useful, providing the council with its only window into what is happening in Syria.
"The mission doesn't have a future in the long term without a clear ratcheting up of the pressure on the Syrian regime," acknowledged one senior European official. At the same time, the official conceded said there is little desire to shut down the mission abruptly. "We don't want to leave the Syrians without hope."
"We've been very practical about this from the outset," Rice told reporters on Monday, following a contentious Security Council meeting on Syria. "The mission is not an end in itself. It is a means to implement the Annan six-point plan, and regrettably, because there has never been a sustained cease-fire and never been a political process, there is no operative Annan plan to be implemented. So, the utility of [the observer mission] in that context has always been and remains quite questionable."
But another council diplomat said that it would be unwise not to "take Rice at her word.... I'm not sure the Americans think this mission is worth having."
"There is a sense that operationally the mission has run its course," said Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University Center for International Cooperation. "I think the Americans feel that the diplomatic track and the policy of maintaining council unity has essentially failed. The Russians either will not or cannot deliver meaningful changes by President [Bashar al] Assad."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch