By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, June 25 (Reuters) - The United Nations is considering cutting the size of its unarmed observer force in Syria, where an escalating conflict has cast doubt on the viability of a U.N.-backed peace plan and a monitoring team meant to help implement it, U.N. envoys say.
Unless there is a significant reduction in violence soon in Syria, where a 16-month old uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad h a s killed over 10,000 people, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of U.N. peacekeeping Herve Ladsous will likely recommend a downsizing of the 300-strong observer force next month, U.N. diplomats say.
"With violence increasing, the most likely option for the United Nations is to reduce or eliminate the (unarmed) m ilitary component of UNSMIS (U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria) while keeping a civilian component in place as a kind of liaison operation," a senior Western envoy said on condition of anonymity. Another council diplomat corroborated his remarks.
Ban and Ladsous are expected to make their recommendations for what to do with UNSMIS in a report due at the 15-nation council by July 2. Among the other options being considered, envoys said, are closing it down completely, leaving it as is, or increasing the number of monitors and possibly arming them.
But there is little appetite for those other options in the case of UNSMIS, which said on June 16 it was suspending its operations due to increased risks to the lives of the observers, who have been targeted with gunfire and bombings since they began deploying in April, council diplomats say.
"If there's no change, it's hard to imagine leaving it as is, turning it into a peacekeeping force with a mandate to protect civilians, or telling everyone to go home," a diplomat told Reuters. "More likely UNSMIS will remain at some level in case a political process or serious negotiations begin."
There are around 100 civilian experts in UNSMIS, who cover issues like human rights and the treatment of children.
"Unfortunately, pulling back may, or even downsizing, could appear as if the U.N. is washing its hands of the conflict and giving a green light to both sides to fight to the death," the diplomat added.
MEETING OF BIG POWERS
A deputy of international mediator Kofi Annan, whose April 12 ceasefire deal and six-point peace plan never took hold, will update the council on Tuesday on Annan's push for a negotiated solution. Annan wants to hold a June 30 meeting of big powers and regional players, including Iran, on Syria in Geneva.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said the council has "now embarked on a final effort to breathe life back into Mr. A n nan's plan. But this will only succeed if this council takes robust action to apply pressure on the (Syrian) regime."
UNSMIS' 90-day mandate expires on July 20. The United States and its European allies have repeatedly urged Russia to help increase the pressure on Assad's government by supporting U.N. sanctions, but Moscow has refused.
Diplomats said Britain, France and other European delegations were keen to push for a new Security Council resolution to make Annan's peace plan legally binding for the government and rebels. This could open the door to U.N. sanctions, something Russia and China have repeatedly rejected.
Moscow and Beijing have vetoed two Western-Arab-backed council resolutions that condemned Damascus and threatened it with sanctions. Several Western diplomats said they were ready to brave the possibility of another council veto.
"I think there's a 99-percent chance we'll see another resolution at the Security Council in the next few weeks," a senior Western envoy said. If there is another veto, envoys say, it will only further highlight the U.N.'s irrelevance in Syria.
Adding to the problems on the ground in Syria is the Security Council deadlock on the issue, which diplomats say is reminiscent of the Cold War, when Russia and Western powers were for decades incapable of working together effectively.
As a result, it was not until after collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 that the council began agreeing on robust peacekeeping mandates for conflicts around the world.
To be fair, the deadlock on Syria has not impacted cooperation between Russia and the United States and Europe on all issues. But as the bloodiest and most protracted of the "Arab Spring" uprisings, the initial determination in New York to tackle Syria has given way to frustration and pessimism.
Despite some limited cooperation with Western powers, Russia and China have been increasingly pro-active in recent years when it comes to preventing Western Security Council members from putting too much pressure on the governments of countries where they have an interest, such as Iran, North Korea and Sudan.
Veto powers Russia and China cover each other's backs on the council to protect their respective allies from interference. Both reject the concept of the "responsibility to protect" civilians from their own governments, a notion the council invoked in March 2011 when it passed a resolution authorizing U.N. members to use force to protect civilians in Libya.
Russia and China abstained, registering their disapproval but allowing the Libya resolution to pass.
Responsibility to protect, or R2P, as it is often referred to, has become increasingly popular in Western diplomatic and academic circles. But Russia and China, like many developing countries, say that R2P contradicts U.N. principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in countries' internal affairs.
MORE INFLUENCE THAN ANY OTHER NATION
Russia repeatedly cites the case of Libya, in which NATO provided support to rebels fighting to oust long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi, as a reason why it opposes council action on Syria - a key ally, a purchaser of Russian arms and host to Russia's only warm-water port outside the former Soviet Union.
"It's depressing," said a council diplomat. "It's impossible to get Russia to move against Assad. Our hands are tied."
While Russia's leverage on Syria's strategy in its 16-month-old onslaught against an increasingly militarized uprising m i ght be limited, analysts and diplomats believe that Moscow has more influence over Damascus than any other player on the international stage.
Moscow has yet to use all of that influence, they say, because it does not want to see Assad and his fellow Alawites ousted from power in Syria because Russia fears they might be replaced by an aggressive Islamist government that would order Russia to shut down its naval base.
"Russia sees the situation in Syria clearly," another senior Western diplomat said. "It's either Assad or the Islamists."
Moscow has repeatedly said that it is not shielding Assad but that the decision on whether he stays should be up to the Syrian people. It has also urged Damascus and the rebels to implement Annan's peace plan.
In recent weeks the U.N. monitors have warned the council that the violence has escalated markedly on both sides, so much so that Ladsous, the head of U.N. peacekeeping, sa id the conflict is now a full-scale civil war.
Not everyone agrees with Ladsous, though it is clear that the rebels now hold some territory and are working hard to get more. The government is expanding its arsenal of artillery and tanks to include helicopter gunships to unseat the rebels.
Russia continues to supply Assad with weapons while Saudi Arabia and Qatar are paying salaries to rebels fighting against Assad.
The result is a rising death toll, including mass killings like those at Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir. Damascus blames the massacres on "terrorists" - its term for the rebels - while the opposition blames the army and allied militia. UNSMIS has said that evidence appears to implicate the army and allied militia. (Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Philip Barbara)