Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Russia has accused the U.S. and its allies of “blackmail” ahead of Wednesday’s United Nations Security Council vote on Syria, because they threatened not to renew Kofi Annan’s observer mission unless Russia agrees to give it teeth. If so, they and Annan failed to use blackmail soon enough or hard enough.

Russia has backed itself into a corner over Syria by refusing to allow a UN mission that would have the power and means to defend itself; to investigate what it wants, when it wants; and to wield the threat of military intervention should the Syrian regime refuse to abide by the UN’s cease-fire plan.

Russia and China will probably block proposals to renew Annan’s mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if the vote goes ahead as planned. Syria is Russia’s only remaining ally in the region and hosts a Russian naval base. But the decision to veto is one that Russia’s new-old President Vladimir Putin may come to regret. Russia’s attempts to gloss over regime atrocities and claim neutrality, even as it continues to arm President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, will make it a pariah to any new administration that eventually takes over in Damascus.

The U.S. and its allies on the Security Council would be wise to carry through their threat to block renewal of Annan’s mission under its existing terms, even though the resulting deadlock would probably end efforts to create an international consensus to force Assad into exile -- an effort that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has now written off as unrealistic.

With fighting in central Damascus, higher level defections from the regime and a rising daily death toll, the Barack Obama administration should join the Gulf states and Turkey in taking actions it has until now resisted. That doesn’t mean sending in the Marines, but it does require further steps that should be taken immediately (and not after November’s U.S. presidential elections). As Annan said last week of the UN Security Council deadlock: “Inaction becomes a license for further massacres.”

First, look for ways the International Criminal Court could issue war crimes indictments against Assad and members of his regime responsible for the pattern of torture, summary executions and use of live rounds to kill unarmed protesters since March 2011. There was an argument for holding off with indictments so long as it made sense to keep the door open for Assad to go into voluntary exile, as happened in Yemen. That argument no longer holds.

Indicting Assad -- or opposition fighters suspected of war crimes -- will be difficult, due to issues of jurisdiction. But it would be valuable to take a public stand on Assad’s culpability.

Second, as the price for greater international support, the U.S. could greatly increase pressure on Syria’s opposition groups to reach out to Kurdish, Christian, Druze and Alawite minorities and to spell out a common vision for a post-Assad Syria. Russia is right that Syria’s main opposition groups are too unrepresentative of the country to give any assurance of a peaceful transition -- as opposed to continued sectarian conflict -- should Assad be removed.

The political platform that results must include clear commitments that allay justifiable fears of retribution among Syria’s large ethnic and religious minorities, should the country’s Sunni majority take power. As enticement, the U.S. and its allies can hold out the carrot of formal recognition to the unified opposition leadership that emerges. Already, new and more diverse groups than the Turkey-based Syrian National Council, such as the National Bloc, are beginning to play a role.

With those commitments in place, the U.S., the U.K. and France in particular should become more involved in the supply of weapons to opposition forces that’s already under way, funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Previously, one could argue against arming the rebels on grounds that doing so would encourage an escalation of the conflict to the much higher levels of casualties and destruction seen in Bosnia and elsewhere, as well as the formation of armed militias that may well commit atrocities of their own.

By now the weapons pipeline is open. Putting control of distribution and training in the hands of U.S. and European special forces -- rather than Sunni regional players such as Saudi Arabia or no one at all -- is the best way to reduce risks. This is especially true of shoulder-held anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, which need to be closely watched.

U.S. involvement on the ground, albeit covert, is made all the more necessary by the recent leaks of U.S. intelligence that Assad has begun moving some of his chemical weapons stocks. Those leaks are best seen in light of Wednesday’s UN Security Council debate and were doubtless part of the blackmail that Lavrov complained about. Whatever was being moved and for whatever reason, the large scale of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and the proliferation threat it poses are beyond dispute. The U.S. has a clear interest in its security.

Military intervention in Syria remains a bad idea. But with Russia blocking the road to a political solution and violence escalating, just trading blame for the deadlock at the UN will not do. A new policy that catches up with events in Syria is needed, and quickly.

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