Syria's decision to kick out Western diplomats -- many of whom had already left the country -- spoke volumes about the evaporating authority of the international community to rein in violence that has been escalating for 15 months and has killed at least 10,000 people.
Damascus cast the move to expel 17 senior envoys representing 11 nations as "working on the principle of reciprocity." The United States and its allies last week banished Syrian diplomats to express their outrage over the May 25 massacre of more than 100 civilians in Houla township.
But the expulsions Tuesday had more than a symbolic, tit-for-tat quality, coming as they did amid recent signs by both embattled President Bashar Assad and the scattered rebel forces fighting to oust him that they see a United Nations-brokered cease-fire as dead.
The gesture of pique by Damascus also coincides with a change at the helm of the U.N. Security Council, where China's ambassador will this month serve as president of the only world body with the power to impose sanctions or take other definitive actions. The powers of the rotating presidency are mostly administrative, said U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq, but also include the authority to set the council's agenda, give priority to the issues before the body and decide who among the 15 member states gets the floor at key moments in discussions.
China is one of five permanent members of the Security Council and as such can veto decisions, a power it has already wielded, along with Russia, at several critical junctures in the Syrian conflict to shield Assad's regime from global sanctions and censure.
China's U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, the newly anointed council president, told reporters at a Monday news conference that China doesn't intend "to protect anybody against anybody," alluding to concerns that Beijing will continue to thwart any blame or punishment of Assad.
China and Russia, ever resistant to outside interference on human rights matters they consider domestic concerns, have used their Security Council vetoes to shield Damascus from more painful sanctions urged by Western and some Arab nations.
“What we really want to see is that the sovereignty of that country can be safeguarded, and the destiny of that country can be in the hands of the people in Syria,” Li said, calling on all sides to honor the six-point peace plan drafted by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan but widely ignored by government loyalists and the rebels.
The 15-nation Security Council voted last week to condemn the Houla massacre, in which armed men went house to house killing civilians, most of them women and children. The resolution of censure didn't specifically blame Assad's troops or militiamen for the killings because of Chinese and Russian objections. U.N. monitors who investigated the slayings concluded that most were committed by paramilitary loyalists of Assad.
Like his allies in Russia and China, Assad has paid lip service to Annan's peace plan in what Middle East analysts see as a time-buying maneuver that staves off calls in the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for more forceful intervention to protect Syrian civilians from their government's armed supporters.
On Sunday, Assad lashed out at what he called "a foreign conspiracy" to foment violence in his country. He has blamed "terrorist" forces from the onset for the fighting wracking Syria, in an attempt to discredit the broad-based opposition that began peacefully demonstrating for his ouster in March 2011.
Annan's plan took effect with a cease-fire six weeks ago that has failed to get Assad to remove troops and heavy artillery from Syrian cities and seems to have done little or nothing to quell the fighting by either side.
A new rebel alliance announced in Istanbul on Monday signaled that it considers the cease-fire a failure and no longer in force. Khaled al-Okla, an organizer of the Syrian Rebels Front, told journalists at a conference in the Turkish city that the new opposition network was formed to answer the "scorched-earth policy" of Assad's regime and in response to "the failure of all Arab and international initiatives to rein in Assad from his crimes."
It was unclear how the newly formed rebel front would coordinate with the Free Syrian Army, another rebel coalition whose leaders operate beyond Syria's borders and with minimal control over the operations of the local rebel units inside Syria. The front claimed to have more than 100 fighting units in Syria, and its founders showed video clips of masked gunmen declaring their allegiance to the cause of deposing Assad.
While the bloodshed looked likely to continue and even escalate, signs have emerged that the 15 months of internal uprising and outside sanctions are taking their toll on the regime. Syria's minister for trade and economic policy, Nidal Shaar, told the parliament Tuesday that "unjust sanctions" imposed by the United States and Europe have caused food and fuel shortages, inflation and a production slump, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency. The Syrian oil minister last month put the loss from fuel trade at $4 billion.
Syrian news media also reported that rebels have killed 80 soldiers, including a general, in the last few days. SANA reported on a sudden dramatic increase in burials, declaring they were for "martyrs" slain in a conflict directed by outside powers.
The banishing of diplomats from Damascus is likely to have little direct effect on diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict that many now fear is sliding into all-out civil war, as U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and others among the 17 named personae non gratae had already returned to their home countries or moved to other posts in the region. But the expulsions were nonetheless a signal that Assad's regime sees nothing to gain by staying in touch with the foreign governments that he has cast as orchestrators of the revolt against him.
Annan plans to brief the U.N. General Assembly on the Syria crisis at a meeting Thursday, then discuss the latest developments in a closed-door session of the Security Council. He will also meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington on Friday.
With Russia and China unwavering in their position that Syria's conflict is for Syrians to sort out, and the United States and its allies increasingly convinced Assad's autocratic rule must come to an end, international diplomacy appears irreconcilably divided and powerless to halt Syria's descent into escalating violence and chaos.
--Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles
Photo: Free Syrian Army militants ride through a town in the northwestern province of Idlib on June 5, 2012. Rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly killed 47 government troops on Tuesday, according to the rebels' Shaam News Network and the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Credit: Shaam News Network via AFP / GettyImages