If the UN Security Council does not take swift action to pressure Syria to end its 14-month assault on the opposition, member nations may have no choice but to consider acting outside the United Nations, the US envoy to the world body said on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters after international mediator Kofi Annan's deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno, gave the 15-nation council a bleak assessment of the impact of Annan's efforts to halt the violence in Syria, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said there were three ways the Syrian conflict could end.
The first would be if Syrian President Bashar-al Assad's government decided to comply with its obligations under Annan's six-point peace plan - stopping its military assaults on Syrian towns, withdrawing heavy weapons, returning troops to barracks and talking with the opposition on a "political transition."
The second option would involve the council taking action to pressure Damascus to fully comply with the Annan plan, she said.
Neither of those scenarios appear likely because Damascus has shown no interest in living up to its commitments and Russia has made clear that any Security Council moves to step up the pressure on Assad's government through sanctions are out of the question.
"In the absence of either of those two scenarios there seems to be only one other alternative, and that is indeed the worst case," Rice said, adding that it was unfortunately looking like "the most probable."
"That is that the violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies," she said. "It involves countries in the region, it takes on increasingly sectarian forms, and we have a major crisis not only in Syria but in the region."
In such a case, Rice said, the Annan plan would be dead and the Syrian violence would become "a proxy conflict with arms flowing in from all sides."
"And members of this council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they're prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this council," she said.
She did not specify what kind of "actions" she meant. The United States has led past military interventions that were not authorized by the Security Council, namely in Kosovo and Iraq. So far the United States and its Western allies have rejected military options and said they would not arm the rebels.
Russia defends arms sales to Syria
German Ambassador Peter Wittig said council members expressed revulsion at the massacre at Houla last week, where more than 100 people, including many children were killed, probably by Syrian government forces and militia.
Wittig urged the council to consider a resolution that would sanction "spoilers" of the Annan plan and suggested that it think about whether the mission of unarmed observers should be expanded.
The British and French envoys also spoke of the need to intensify pressure on Assad's government.
But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow, which holds a veto on the Security Council, opposes the idea of ratcheting up pressure on Damascus in the form of UN sanctions.
"Our attitude toward sanctions, frankly, continues to be negative," he said, adding that Moscow wants countries doing so to stop supplying weapons to Syrian rebels. He also voiced concern about the increasing presence of extremists in Syria.
Asked about Russia's supply of weapons to Assad's government, Churkin said: "The weapons we may have provided to Syria under various contracts, which were concluded a long time ago, are fully in line with international law and do not contribute to the current armed violence in Syria."
The expulsion of Syrian diplomats from several countries, including the United States, could be mistaken as a precursor to foreign military intervention in Syria, Churkin said.
"I hope an effort is made not to allow this step to be misinterpreted as something which is basically a prerequisite of some kind of a foreign military intervention in the near future, which is not the case."
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari complained about unilateral US, European and other sanctions, calling them "irresponsible acts."
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Guehenno said that "in the council there is an understanding that any sliding toward a full-scale civil war in Syria would be catastrophic and the Security Council now needs to have that kind of strategic discussion on how that needs to be avoided."
He did not say what kinds of steps the council should take. Earlier he told the council via video link that the violence is unlikely to stop without political negotiations between the government and opposition, UN diplomats said.