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Does Syria envoy Brahimi have a Plan C?

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded a gloomy note on the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria, telling reporters today at Turtle Bay that U.N.-backed efforts to curtail the violence were proving elusive.

Ban's grim assessment comes as U.N.-Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi is in New York to press the U.N. Security Council to ratchet up political pressure on the warring parties to put down their weapons. But there are few signs that the big power divisions that have paralyzed the U.N. Security Council over the past two years have been overcome.

"Brahimi continues his diplomatic efforts. We met yesterday, and reviewed the latest state of play," Ban said. "Our shared assessment is that we are still a long way from getting the Syrians together."

"The situation is very dire, very difficult," he added. "We do not see much prospect of a resolution at this time."

It's no wonder.

In a Jan. 6 address to the Syrian people, President Bashar al-Assad effectively rejected the former Algerian diplomat's plan for a political transition.

Brahimi's Plan B -- a diplomatic effort to get United States and Russian agreement on a plan that would pressure the Syrian leader to step aside -- has gone nowhere. Senior U.N.-based diplomats say that those talks have achieved only the most incremental progress, and that while some Russian diplomats appear open to a deal, their political masters in Moscow have balked at any pact that would undercut Assad.

Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that his government will accept no plan for a transitional government in Syria that requires Assad step down. Last week, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, drove home that point at a Security Council luncheon hosted by Ban.

The Russian stance has dealt a blow to Brahimi's efforts to increase pressure on Assad to make way for a transitional government which would preserve a role for Syria's security institutions, but require him to step aside.

U.N. officials say that Brahimi recognizes that a Russian and American pact may not be enough to get the Syrian government and the rebels to stop fighting right away.

But the point of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy, said one U.N. official, is to "start changing the dynamics at play" by putting in place a diplomatic process that can eventually persuade the warring parties and their allies that there is a peaceful alternative to civil war.

The U.N. hopes, according to the U.N. official, that if the United States and Russia do converge on an agreed strategy, the U.N. Security Council will rally behind them, opening the door to the possibility of a legally binding Security Council resolution that would seek to compel the warring factions to stop fighting through the imposition of an arms embargo and other coercive measures.

"A U.S.-Russian agreement would not be a magic bullet. But it could very well lead to some possibilities that are currently unavailable because of the utter lack of unity in the international community," said the official. The armed opposition, meanwhile, "might have more faith in a political approach" if it is backed by a Security Council resolution "that makes Bashar's inevitable departure seem more real." The Syrian rebels have made clear that they will not accept any political transition that keeps Assad in place.

But some senior U.N.-based diplomats fear that Brahimi has run out of workable options. "It was a mistake of Brahimi to think we are in the Cold War and the Americans and the Russians can decide," said one senior U.N.-based diplomat . "Even if they agree I don't see how and why the fighters who have been fighting for 18 months or two years will accept the diktat of the United States and Russia."

Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on Global Cooperation, said "Brahimi's calculation is that the regional players [who are arming the opposition] are not likely to shift their positions unless they see some sort of signal from the United States and Russia. As long as Russia and the United States are far apart there is no incentive for anyone in the region to rethink their stances. So that's the case for pushing ahead with the Russian track."

Gowan sees little reason to believe Moscow will "do anything to initiate the fall of Assad," saying that Russia is "just stringing everyone along as it has been stringing everyone along for a year." But he said he believes that Brahimi is keen to keep the talks going to pave the way for cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the event that Assad does fall. "This is creating some sort of basis for Russia and the United States to agree on a common response when Assad goes," he said.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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