Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton deployed the breadth of diplomatic niceties this week in describing the United Nations' condemnation of Syria as a "positive step" toward ending the worsening civil war. Only hours after the Security Council called for a cease-fire and peace talks, Syrian President Bashar Assad's government forces unleashed a new round of shelling, killing dozens and bringing the death toll in the year-old conflict to some 8,000 people. The world community needs to remain focused on the crisis and keep pushing Assad and his enablers in Russia to stop further turmoil in a chaotic region.
The "presidential statement" by the Security Council was more a nod than a step in the right direction. The Security Council adopted a similar statement last August, calling for a cease-fire and humanitarian aid, and for the Syrian government to follow through on its pledge to political reform. Wednesday's statement went further by embracing a six-part framework for beginning talks on a political transition. But that looks like political cover to one of the United Nations' own, the former secretary general, Kofi Annan, who authored the U.N. proposal. Assad, after all, already rejected a similar peace plan by the Arab League. Presidential statements, anyway, lack the legal force of a U.N. resolution. And Russia, which along with China vetoed stronger U.N. sanctions against Syria, still managed to water down the latest Security Council declaration, reaffirming that the killings in Syria were a matter of "territorial integrity." If Assad wants to murder his people, in other words, that's his business.
The resolution buys Assad time to further pummel rebel forces, disrupt the opposition and gain some popular standing by painting the uprising as the work of terrorists and Western-inspired front groups. A report this week by the international watchdog Human Rights Watch that Syrian opposition forces have carried out serious abuses, from execution and torture to kidnapping, plays into the dictatorship's hand. The West is right to refrain from taking on a direct military role, as in Libya. But it certainly should condition its moral support for the rebels' adhering to accepted standards of treatment for combatants and noncombatants alike.
The U.N. measure adds to the drumbeat for isolating Syria, but the road for peaceful regime change in Damascus runs through Moscow. To an extent, Russia's sharper tone is more a reflection of the calendar; now that Vladimir Putin has moved beyond his campaign and won a return to the presidency, he can afford to hedge his bets in Syria without appearing weak. Russia will use its meetings with Annan and Syrian rebel groups to test whether Moscow can retain its influence with a post-Assad government. The West needs to keep pressing both Assad and Russia to move toward a deal that avoids a wider war and the predictable fallout.