With world outrage still reverberating over a weekend massacre of villagers, the United States ambassador to the United Nations suggested Wednesday that with little hope left for a political settlement, the conflict in Syria appeared likely to develop into a regional sectarian war.
The appraisal by the ambassador, Susan E. Rice, appeared to reflect a new level of pessimism about a diplomatic solution to the Syria crisis, now in its 15th month, after the United Nations special envoy, Kofi Annan, traveled to Syria over the weekend to try to salvage a peace plan he brokered that has been blatantly ignored since it officially took effect in mid-April.
Since Mr. Assad appears unlikely to comply with the terms of the plan, or to be persuaded to do so, Ms. Rice said after a Security Council briefing by Mr. Annan’s deputy, “There seems to me to be only one other alternative, and that is indeed the worst case, which seems unfortunately at the present to be the most probable.
“And that is that the violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies, it reaches a higher degree of severity, it involves countries in the region, and it takes on increasingly sectarian forms, and we have a major crisis not only in Syria but in the region.”
In that outcome, she said, “The Council’s unity is exploded, the Annan plan is dead and this becomes a proxy conflict with arms flowing in from all sides.”
Western and Arab countries have blamed the Syrian government for the failure of the peace plan, while Syrian officials say armed antigovernment elements, including foreign terrorists, are the cause.Video: Inside Houla, after the massacre (on this page)
Ms. Rice said the United States and its allies still supported Mr. Annan’s plan, which calls for immediate cessation of violence and the beginnings of a political dialogue between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents.
But she said Mr. Assad would either have to agree to immediately adhere to the peace plan, or be swayed to do so by additional pressure, including Security Council sanctions. Both appeared unlikely, she said. She cited “differences of views” on sanctions, an apparent reference to resistance from Russia and China.
Ms. Rice spoke to reporters outside the Security Council’s chambers after the private briefing by Mr. Annan’s deputy, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, via private video link from United Nations offices in Geneva. Mr. Guéhenno, who spoke with reporters earlier in Geneva about the briefing, was less definitive in his public remarks. But he said the Council members had “an understanding that any sliding toward a full-scale civil war in Syria would be catastrophic and the Security Council now needs to have that kind of strategic discussion on how that needs to be avoided.”
The developments came as cease-fire monitors on the ground in Syria — still grappling with the killings of more than 100 villagers in Houla, a cluster of hamlets in the western part of the country — reported a new atrocity on Wednesday, saying 13 people had been discovered shot to death in eastern Syria, with hands bound behind their backs.Video: 13 bound bodies found in Syria (on this page)
Antigovernment activists said the 13 victims, found Tuesday night in the Assukar area of Deir ez-Zor Province, were electrical workers who had refused to end a strike.
Gen. Robert Mood, commander of the 300-member cease-fire monitor group, did not specify the circumstances behind the apparent extrajudicial executions. But he said in a statement that he was “deeply disturbed by this appalling and inexcusable act.”
United Nations officials are trying to investigate the killings in the Houla area, and some have publicly suggested that they appeared to have been carried out by both military forces and government thugs known as Shabiha. Mr. Assad, who has denied the government was responsible, has promised his own investigation of the killings, which all sides in the conflict have denounced as appalling.
Mr. Guéhenno and Security Council diplomats who spoke to reporters later offered no new specific ideas to resolve the Syrian crisis.
“The Syria government has made commitments, and it’s blatantly violated those commitments, and as I’ve said, if they continue, there should be consequences,” Ms. Rice told reporters afterward.
Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador, said Russia agreed with other Council members that the Syrian crisis was deteriorating, but he blamed all antagonists. “We support a political settlement in Syria,” he said. “We are not one-sided. You need to be assured that Russia will continue to do the right thing.”Video: Romney’s take on Syria (on this page)
A senior Western official said Mr. Guéhenno had told Security Council members that direct talks between Mr. Assad and his adversaries could not be expected at this stage of the conflict.
The official, who spoke about the private briefing on the condition of anonymity, also said it was “not a given” that the Council would renew the mandate for Mr. Annan’s peace plan when it comes up for renewal at the end of 90 days, in late July. Nonetheless, the official said, “there is unity in that we want to give the Annan plan a chance.”
The government’s isolation grew Wednesday as Turkey joined an expanding list of countries in expelling Syria’s envoys.
Explaining the expulsion order, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “The grave crime against humanity committed by those conducting a massive massacre against civilians cannot be left unpunished.”Video: US remains opposed to military intervention in Syria (on this page)
In Washington, the Treasury Department added the Syria International Islamic Bank to its Syria sanctions blacklist.
Syria’s state-run news media said nothing about the discovery of the electrical workers or the news of Syria’s further diplomatic isolation. Rather, the home page of the official Syrian Arab News Agency’s Web site was dominated by a report on the burials of 25 law enforcement officials and others apparently killed in clashes with antigovernment forces.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul.
This story, "U.S. envoy sees grim outcome for Syria," originally appeared in The New York Times.
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