By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The success or failure of Kofi Annan's peace plan for Syria will depend largely on how willing Russia is to keep sustained pressure on a government that Moscow is determined to protect from Western calls for "regime change."
Even if, as expected, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fails to comply fully with an April 10 deadline to halt military operations and pull its army out of population centers, U.N. diplomats say Annan will keep pushing Russia and China to help him pressure Damascus to end the year-long conflict.
The former U.N. secretary-general, now an envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League on Syria, told the 15-nation Security Council on Monday the Syrian government had agreed for the first time to a deadline to halt fighting by April 10, to be followed by an end of rebel operations within 48 hours. The council hopes to endorse the deadline formally soon.
Russia has endorsed the April 10 deadline, and said Assad's government should take the first step toward a cease-fire. While Moscow still staunchly opposes outside intervention in the Syrian conflict, diplomats and observers said its position has shifted toward putting more pressure on Damascus.
It is difficult to find a U.N. official or diplomat in New York who believes Assad will fully keep his word, since he has failed to keep all previous promises to halt his assault on pro-democracy demonstrators and rebels.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, president of the Security Council this month, summed up the atmosphere of skepticism prevailing among Western powers on the council.
"The United States is concerned and quite skeptical that the government of Syria will suddenly adhere to its commitments," Rice told reporters on Tuesday. "In the event that it does not, we will be certainly consulting with colleagues on the Security Council as to what are appropriate next steps."
What "next steps" could those be? In theory, the council could impose sanctions on Damascus or even authorize military intervention to protect Syrian civilians as it did last year in the cases of Libya and Ivory Coast.
But Russia, supported by China, has made clear that it opposes U.N. sanctions and will never back military force to topple the Syrian government. Moscow and Beijing have twice vetoed resolutions that condemned Syrian military assaults on protesters and hinted at the possibility of sanctions.
Still, if Annan reports to the council that Assad has failed to comply with the deadline and urges it to pass a resolution to pressure Damascus to implement his six-point peace plan, it would be difficult for Russia to ignore such a request.
Annan's plan calls for an end to the fighting and dialogue between the government and opposition aimed at initiating a "political transition." It falls short of an Arab-League plan calling for Assad to step aside, a proposal Damascus and Moscow vehemently rejected.
All the while, the body count in Syria continues to rise. The United Nations says the Syrian army has killed more than 9,000 people while Damascus blames rebel "armed groups" for the death of some 3,000 members of the security forces.
Opposition activists accused Syrian troops of shelling two cities on Tuesday in a campaign to weaken forces fighting Assad's government before the ceasefire deadline. Rebel fighters also kept up their attacks, killing three soldiers in separate actions in northern Syria.
RUSSIA LOSING PATIENCE WITH ASSAD
Russia has repeatedly accused the United States and Europe of tricking it in March 2011 into abstaining on a council resolution authorizing military force to protect Libyan civilian so that NATO could help rebels topple leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"Russia has three goals at the moment," a senior Western diplomat said. "To punish the West for Libya, to show that it is a diplomatic power that can't be ignored, and to protect its naval port in Syria. These three goals are very important."
But Russia, which has its only warm-water naval port outside the former Soviet Union in Syria, has grown increasingly frustrated with Damascus and its failure to end an uprising that began over a year ago and has expanded to the point that the country is on the brink of civil war.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.N. diplomat who has been following Syria closely said there had been "a major shift in the Russian position. They have very clearly had enough of the prevarication and intransigence from the Syrian regime."
A senior U.S. official described Moscow's support for the deadline as "an important shift."
"What this is doing is preventing him (Assad) from running out the clock, and to do that they had to put a certain date on it," the U.S. official said.
Several Western diplomats said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had privately told several of his European counterparts that Assad would probably be ousted, but someone from his minority Alawite inner circle - the Alawites are a Shi'ite offshoot - would step in and keep Assad's policies.
"Russia believes regime change in Syria would result in an Islamist regime after a great deal of bloodshed," a senior diplomat said. "They would rather keep the current government roughly in place, with or without Assad."
Georgy Mirsky, a Russian Middle East expert, echoed this view. He said Moscow hopes Assad will stay in power but is hedging its bets to prepare for any outcome, improve its image, and retain diplomatic clout. He said Russia's support for Annan's peace plan and for the demand that government forces take the first ceasefire step did not mean Moscow had abandoned Assad or would pressure him to withdraw from areas that could fall under control of his foes.
"Of course Russia wants the Assad government to stay, but it is not quite sure of his survival," said Mirsky, chief research fellow at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "A few months ago, if you asked a Russian official, he would tell you there's no doubt that very soon it will all be over and the rebellion will be crushed. Now, they are not so certain," he said. "And the Russian authorities are keen to be seen as allies of world public opinion, as partners of Kofi Annan."
(Additional reporting By Michelle Nichols in New York, Andrew Quinn in Washington, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Steve Gutterman in Moscow. Editing by Warren Strobel)