By Oliver Holmes | Reuters | Jun. 4, 2012
(Reuters) - Syrian rebels killed at least 80 army soldiers at the weekend, an opposition watchdog said on Monday, in a surge of attacks that followed their threat to resume fighting if President Bashar al-Assad failed to observe a U.N.-backed ceasefire.
The latest violence and Assad's defiant speech to parliament on Sunday raised questions about how long U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan can realistically pursue his threadbare peace plan.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said local doctors had confirmed the names of 80 dead government soldiers.
Insurgents told the British-based group they had killed more than 100 soldiers and destroyed some tanks in clashes across Syria, including Damascus and Idlib province in the northwest.
Syria's state news agency reported the burial on Monday of 30 members of the security forces killed by rebels.
Some commanders in the rebel Free Syrian Army had announced last week they would be "free of any commitment" to Annan's peace plan if Assad did not end violence by Friday.
The May 25 massacre of at least 108 people, nearly half of them children, in the Houla area of Homs province dealt a possibly fatal blow to Annan's proposed ceasefire, which was supposed to take effect on April 12 but never did.
A Syrian troop pullback was at the top of Annan's six-point plan to halt hostilities, allow peaceful protests, supply humanitarian aid and start a political transition in a country controlled by the Assad family with an iron fist for 42 years.
"The Annan mission is essentially dead, and of course most Western powers admit that," said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute's branch in Qatar.
"Houla changed the game completely in terms of what people were willing to accept and what they were not."
"NO PLAN B"
However, Russia and China, wary of any Western-led military intervention in Syria, say Annan's plan is the only way forward. They have twice blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions which would have condemned Damascus and perhaps led to sanctions.
Western powers have no appetite for Libya-style military action, but have provided no alternative to Annan's efforts.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged last month there was no "Plan B".
Assad has rebuffed criticism of the carnage in his country. "When a surgeon performs an operation to treat a wound, do we say to him: 'Your hands are covered in blood'?" he asked in his speech on Sunday. "Or do we thank him for saving the patient?"
Annan, who has inserted 300 United Nations observers into Syria to verify the non-existent truce, will brief the Security Council on Thursday. A U.S. official said the envoy would see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington the next day.
Clinton, on a trip to Sweden, called Annan on Monday, the official said, adding that she had discussed a conversation she had with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, and talks on Syria that she plans to have in Turkey this week.
The U.S. official said Western and Arab countries were expected to discuss the Syria crisis in Istanbul on Wednesday.
The latest flare-up can only intensify alarm that Syria is sliding deeper into a civil war envenomed by sectarian rancor between Assad's minority Alawites and the Sunni Muslim majority.
Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told Reuters several army checkpoints were overrun in heavy overnight clashes in Idlib province, a rebel bastion.
"A minimum of 4 to 6 checkpoints in the village of Ariha were attacked and destroyed in the last 24 hours," he said.
Syria's uprising, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, began with peaceful protests, but the United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people since March, 2011.
Damascus accuses armed "terrorists" of killing more than 2,600 soldiers and other members of the security forces.
RUSSIA, CHINA ADAMANT
Moscow has broadly backed Assad's narrative.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ceded no ground on Syria in remarks during visits to Berlin and Paris on Friday, accenting rebel violence, criticizing sanctions and saying political decisions could not be imposed from outside.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Aston Ashton, who met Lavrov on Sunday, said the EU wanted to "work closely with Russia to find a way to end the violence" and that "Russia's role is crucial for the success of Annan's plan".
China's top state newspaper, the People's Daily, warned on Monday that any Western-backed military intervention would unleash even bloodier chaos, and said that abandoning Annan's plan could push Syria into the "abyss" of full-scale war.
On Friday, Russia, China and Cuba voted against a resolution passed by the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva that condemned Syria for the Houla massacre and called for a U.N. inquiry ahead of a possible criminal prosecution.
Stephens, the RUSI analyst, said the Chinese were "living in a "dream world" if they thought Syria could regain peace as long as Assad clung to power.
But he also said letting Annan's mission fail would be a disaster, arguing that the monitors could play a useful role by documenting abuses, making it harder for Russia and China to sustain their effective support for Assad.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a political scientist from the United Arab Emirates, said no one wanted to abandon Annan's initiative, however futile it had proved in stopping the violence, adding:
"The only way to tip the balance is for the Arab and Western countries to increase their support for the Free Syrian Army."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Denis Dyomkin in St Petersburg, John O'Donnell in Brussels, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Arshad Mohammed in Stockholm and Mahmoud Habboush in Dubai; Writing by Alistair Lyon)