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Russia Reassessment Critical After Syrian Officials' Killings

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The stunning suicide attack Wednesday morning that struck at the heart of Syria's security state, killing the defense minister and other top military officials, could not have been better timed to shake Russia's leaders out of their go-slow complacency toward forcing an end to the fighting there. They confront a situation that is "is rapidly spinning out of control," as U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta put it a few hours later -- and the reality that their investment in Syria's half-century-old Ba'athist regime is equally rapidly depreciating to junk status.

United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan seemed to sense that the dramatic news from Damascus might inspire Moscow to reassess its opposition to coercive measures. Though Annan had tailored his peace plan to Russia's specifications, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad still balked at implementing its core commitments. Annan is pressing the powers on the Syria action group he convened in Geneva three weeks ago to coordinate pressures on recalcitrant Syrians.

But Russia remains suspicious that the Western countries' real interest is to overthrow a Russian ally. It warned that it would veto a British resolution in the Security Council coupling renewal of the U.N. monitoring mission that expires Friday with U.N. sanctions intended to compel Assad to carry out the provisions of Annan's peace plan. London and Washington insist that, without new pressures to bring Assad to fulfill the ceasefire, they see no point in extending the monitors' presence in Syria and would veto a Russian resolution that simply continues the monitors' mandate.

At Annan's request, the votes -- and double vetoes -- expected in the Security Council Wednesday have been delayed a day. Against the backdrop of the shock to the Syrian government, Annan has an additional day to reconcile the Russian and Western concerns.

Russian authorities view sanctions against the Syrian government as "direct support for the revolutionary movement," according to foreign minister Sergey Lavrov -- "a dead-end policy to support the opposition." For all the evolution in the Russian position that Western diplomats have detected in recent weeks, Moscow remains viscerally opposed to one-sided promotion of regime change. The potential for convergence may rest, then, on imposing obligations -- and sanctions for their non-fulfillment -- on both sides.

The Security Council has once before voted to impose sanctions on whichever side of a bloody conflict refused to implement the steps the council demanded for a ceasefire: 24 years ago, to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war, which killed 30 times as many people as the strife in Syria has killed. For years Iran's supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, had adamantly spurned calls for a cease-fire with the Iraqi aggressor. But he reluctantly "drank the cup of poison" of a U.N. truce when the Security Council voted sanctions on the noncomplying party.

The Security Council's decisive action in 1988 to force an end to the Iran-Iraq war, after a scandalous eight years of indifference punctuated by periodic calls for a ceasefire in place, opened the modern era of great-power collaboration at the United Nations. Action now on a resolution requiring verifiable steps by all Syrian parties backed by suitable enforcement mechanisms can restore the collaboration that was badly frayed in Libya.

Amid the warning signs of a fatal weakening of Assad's government -- the swelling defections of pilots, diplomats and senior army officers, the government's loss of control over wider swathes of territory, the growing effectiveness of rebel forces, and of course today's devastating attack on the security elite -- the Russians should be motivated buyers of such a way forward.

For their part, Washington and its allies should resist any temptation to abandon the Annan roadmap to a negotiated Syrian peace settlement based on assumptions that the anti-Assad coalition will win with a knock-out blow. The complete unraveling of the Syrian government would likely be a very chaotic "victory" in a region where chaos sows the dragon's teeth of new war.