By Elise Labott, from Paris
None of baker's dozen of foreign ministers huddling Thursday at the mini-Friends of Syria meeting actually said they believed that the six-point plan proposed by special envoy Kofi Annan would stop the violence in Syria and pave the way for President Bashar al-Assad's ouster.
Even as the ministers stressed the urgent need to send monitors into Syria to observe the cease-fire, they were pointing to the declaration by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the Syrian regime has violated nearly every aspect of Annan's plan, including obstructing work on the advance monitoring team on the ground and turning a blind eye to the growing humanitarian crisis on the ground.
Despite the fact the U.N. says the shelling of Homs and other Syrian towns are as bad as ever, despite the fact that the regime continued to fire on peaceful protestors while the U.N. observers were presented, the ministers in Paris were loath to declare the Annan plan dead.
Why? Because it's their only hope. The hope that the cease-fire will hold long enough that a full U.N. monitoring force can move into the country. The hope that al-Assad will break with his tradition and stop killing his opponents. The hope that he will suddenly move toward a "political transition" and step aside.
"It looks bad, but we can't give up," one Arab foreign minister told me. "It's the only game in town."
With the world clinging to the Annan plan, there were no decisions to be made in Paris, no "next steps" to be taken. There is, however, a French election beginning next week, where President Nicholas Sarkozy is by no means assured re-election and need a chance to exercise a little leadership on national security. As one diplomat at the meeting said about its raison d'etre: "French politics. C'est tout.
In recent days the United States has ramped up its rhetoric to put pressure on the regime. On Wednesday at NATO, Secretary of State Secretary Clinton said the U.N.-brokered cease-fire remained al-Assad's "last chance before additional measures are considered." Thursday in Paris, she upped the ante by calling for the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution imposing an arms embargo and other tough sanctions against the regime if Assad doesn't comply with the Annan plan. Clinton didn't say so explicitly but by invoking the dreaded "Chapter 7" of the U.N. charter, the implication is that the international community could use military action to enforce the resolution.
Clinton also hinted at a possible role for NATO after Syrian forces shelled across the border last week into Turkey, a NATO ally where thousands of Syrian refugees and rebel forces have taken refuge. Turkey, she said, raised the option of possible involvement. According to the NATO charter, an attack on one member is considered to be an attack on them all.
At least for now, these are empty threats. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance would not intervene without the kind of an international mandate the only the United Nations could provide. Russia and China, which are generally allergic to military intervention, have vetoed two Security Council resolutions that merely condemned the actions of the regime. While Moscow and Beijing have sharpened their criticism of the regime, they are highly unlikely to endorse any action at the U.N. that paves the way for the possible use of force.
Al-Assad knows this. So does Clinton. Although official U.S. policy, as stated by President Barack Obama and Clinton on down, is that al-Assad should step down, the administration's actions to date reflect a certain willingness to leave him in power.
The United States has not hidden its frustration at the Syrian opposition's lack of organization and vision, nor have officials been silent about concerns about the threat of a looming civil war among Syria's various ethnic groups. Even Clinton herself has said that Syrian rebel forces, undertrained and poorly armed, are no match for al-Assad's massive army. Privately, her aides acknowledge that without a military coup or outside strike, he is likely to remain in power for some time.
A new Security Council resolution could help strengthen the fledgling opposition. Although the arming of rebel forces by Gulf states is going slowly, the U.S. is expanding its communications, logistics, and other support for the Syrian opposition. Clinton said the U.S. could work with Turkey to establish an "an assistance hub" to locate Syrian activists and help them coordinate the collection and distribution of assistance to opposition groups inside Syria.
Until the opposition grows stronger and with precious little appetite for military action, there is no Plan B. Which takes us back to the Annan plan.
It is unclear whether this new sharper tone will force a change in the regime's behavior. If it doesn't, it remains to be seen how long the international community will cling to the farce that the Annan plan will work as an excuse for inaction before they say what they already privately admit, that it is a failure.