CAIRO — The United Nations said Saturday that it was suspending its observer mission in Syria because of the escalating violence, the most severe blow yet to months of international efforts to negotiate a peace plan and prevent Syria's descent into civil war.
The United Nations said the monitors would not be withdrawn from Syria, but were being locked down in Syria's most contested cities, unable to conduct patrols. While the decision to suspend their work was made chiefly to protect the unarmed monitors, the unstated purpose appeared to be to force Russia to intervene to assure that the observers are not the targets of Syrian forces or their sympathizers. Russia has opposed Western intervention and, by some accounts, continues to arm the forces of President Bashar Assad.
For President Barack Obama, the suspension of the observers' activities — unless it is reversed quickly — could signal the failure of the latest effort by the West to reach a diplomatic solution and ease Assad from power.
But Obama's choices are no better than they were when the uprising in Syria began nearly a year and a half ago. A bombing campaign like the one conducted last year by NATO in Libya with strong U.S. and Arab League support is not feasible in Syria: The battle is being waged in crowded cities, with little chance to attack the Syrian army without the risk of high civilian casualties.
Obama, NATO nations and the Arab League have never wanted to send in a ground force, which would probably face heavy casualties in what many fear is emerging as a civil war.
The White House issued a statement Saturday once again calling on Syria to uphold commitments it has made in recent months, "including the full implementation of a cease-fire." The statement added: "We are consulting with our international partners regarding next steps toward a Syrian-led political transition" called for in two U.N. Security Council resolutions, and "the sooner this transition takes place, the greater the chance of averting a lengthy and bloody civil war."
Syria's uprising has become one of the most intractable and deadliest conflicts of the Arab Spring, with reports of at least four massacres in recent weeks, including accounts of killings of as many as 78 civilians, many of them women and children.
On Saturday, dozens of Syrians were killed in government attacks across the country, especially in villages around Damascus, the capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain with contacts in Syria. The group and other activists said security forces were carrying out sweeping arrests, particularly of young men, around the capital.
The observers had been the foundation of a six-point peace plan that Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general and the special envoy to Syria, had sought to hammer out with the consent of Assad and his foreign sponsors, including Russia and Iran. Both of those countries have huge stakes in the outcome: Russia has a military base in Syria and has long used Assad as an instrument to project influence in the region, and the Syrian government is Iran's only real ally in the region.
The leader of the observer mission in Syria, Gen. Robert Mood, said that he had little choice but to suspend the mission. Escalating violence across Syria over the past 10 days had prevented the teams from carrying out their mandate to verify events on the ground.
Responding to the observers' decision, Syria's government said Saturday that it respected both the peace plan and the safety of the U.N. observers. But it blamed the opposition for the escalation of violence in Syria.