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Can the UN cease-fire in Syria be saved by the US and Russia?

Howard LaFranchiThe Christian Science Monitor

Can Syria’s cease-fire monitoring mission be saved?

With fighting between loyalist and rebel forces raging Tuesday in the suburbs of Damascus, Turkey and NATO taking up last week’s shoot-down by Syria of a Turkish fighter jet, and UN monitors in Syria restricted to their quarters because conditions outside are too dangerous, any cease-fire and peace plan may already seem to be a fiction.

But former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN’s Syria envoy and author of the six-point Annan peace plan for stopping Syria’s violence and ushering in a peaceful political transition, wants to know if the plan – which includes the UN monitoring mission – has any life left in it. So Mr. Annan has proposed holding a meeting of a proposed “contact group on Syria” in Geneva this Saturday.

Annan came up with the idea of a "contact group" primarily as a means of at least attempting to put the US and Russia on the same page on the Syria crisis, and to reduce both international divisions over Syria and the risk of those divisions deteriorating into a broader regional conflict. So far only the Western and Arab countries aligned on the goal of seeing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power have managed to form a pro-opposition Friends of Syria group, but Russia has shunned the group and criticized it for actions that it says constitute interference in Syria's internal affairs.

It remains unclear if the meeting will take place, however, with Western powers including the United States less than enthusiastic about the gathering. The principle bone of contention is that Annan wants Iran, as one of a number of influential regional players in the Syria conflict, to attend. Others, led by the US, are dead set against the idea.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said inclusion of Iran in such a meeting would be a “red line” – a position that would be hard to walk back from – because of Iran’s overt support for President Assad in his violent crackdown on opposition forces.

Annan has suggested to officials from several countries that he wants the US and Russia, which is Assad’s most critical source of international support, to come to an agreement on the issue of Iran’s participation in a contact group. Secretary Clinton, who is traveling in Europe, plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Saint Petersburg Friday, but UN officials say Annan wants a resolution of the Iran dispute before then if the Geneva meeting is to go forward.

Annan last week defended his call for Iran to take part in a Syria contact group, saying the obvious fissures in the international community on dealing with the Syria crisis were leading to “destructive competition.”

Speaking to reporters in Geneva last week, Annan said, "I have made it quite clear that I believe Iran should be part of the solution. If we continue the way we are going and competing with each other,” he added, “it could lead to destructive competition and everyone will pay the price."

Annan has also proposed that Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia participate in the group, along with the five permanent members of the Security Council. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are reported to have begun supplying arms to Syria’s rebels, so Annan’s insistence on including Iran is seen by some analysts as an effort to balance the pro-and anti-Assad participants and reassure Russia.

Aside from those countries, Annan has also proposed that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi, take part in the contact group.

A Saturday meeting of Annan’s proposed contact group may not be the make-or-break factor determining whether or not his pulseless peace plan survives, but not having a meeting at all would reinforce perceptions that a deeply divided international community is far from any concerted action on Syria – and the conflict would likely rage on.

The US has already suggested that the UN monitoring mission is unlikely to survive once its initial three-month mandate is up in July.

“If there is no discernible movement by then,” Clinton said in Washington last week, “it would be very difficult to extend a mission that is increasingly dangerous for the observers on the ground.”