Last week, Russia and China's U.N. veto of a resolution to stem the violence in Syria and set forth a transition of power from Bashar al-Assad appeared to sideline the United Nations from the crisis.
But today, the U.N. appeared to be moving back into the game. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to consider participating in a joint Arab League-U.N. monitoring mission in Syria and appointing a joint special envoy to deal with the crisis.
"Yesterday, I spoke with the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, about how to end the killings and begin political negotiations," Ban told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday. "He informed me that he intends to send the Arab League observer mission back to Syria and asked for U.N. help. He further suggested that we consider a joint observer mission in Syria, including a joint special envoy."
The move comes as key Western and Arab leaders are weighing the possibility of going to the U.N. General Assembly to seek support for a resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition in Syria. They would argue that China and Russia's veto over the weekend of a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council has prevented the U.N. security body from shouldering its responsibility for managing peace and security in Syria.
The move came on the heels of a high-level visit by Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Russia's top intelligence official, Mikhail Fradkov, to Damascus, where they met with the Syrian president. Assad said he was willing to allow the Arab League monitors to resume their work in Syria. He also committed to participate in Russian-brokered talks with the opposition. The Syrian opposition, however, has been unwilling to enter negotiations with Assad.
Ban, meanwhile, warned that the violence in Syria threatens to spread throughout the region, implicitly faulting Russia and China for blocking Security Council action. At the same time, he echoed criticism from Arab and Western leaders that Assad is responsible for the mass loss of life in Syria.
"For too many months, we have watched this crisis deepen. We have seen escalating violence, brutal crackdowns, and tremendous suffering by the Syrian people," he said. "I deeply regret that the Security Council has been unable to speak with one clear voice to end the bloodshed.
"The failure to do so is disastrous for the people of Syria. It has encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people. Thousands have been killed in cold blood, shredding President Assad's claims to speak for the Syrian people."
"I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods, is a grim harbinger of worse to come," he added. "Such violence is unacceptable before humanity. How many deaths will it take to halt this dangerous slide toward civil war and sectarian strife?"
The Obama administration, meanwhile, made it clear that the United States has little interest in using military force to pressure Assad to leave, as it did in Libya last year. "It's important to note there is not a clamor in New York, from the Arab League, even among many of the opposition elements in Syria, for foreign military intervention," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation in a discussion at the Core Club on Monday. "And there really isn't much in way of active debate and discussion about that as a potential immediate next step."
"What we are focused on is increasing the political pressure and the economic pressure on Assad and increasing his sense of isolation," she added. "There's more that the European Union could do; there's more that the neighboring countries can do.… There needs to be a transition in Syria that ends the killing and the horrific violence and leads to a much more peaceful and democratic disposition for the people. And we're going to continue and intensify the political and economic and diplomatic pressure toward that end with the expectation that, indeed despite this setback, the tide is not running in the favor of the Assad regime."
But is it possible to dislodge Assad without the use of military force? "I think … given the precise nature of the Syrian challenge, it would be far better and indeed possible and, we hope, probable that this can be resolved without the use of force and through diplomatic and economic means," said Rice.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.