By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Barely had the first U.N. ceasefire monitors set foot on Syrian soil this week than Bashar al-Assad's enemies were discussing the likelihood of the mission failing and warning of punitive measures against the Syrian president.
The emir of Qatar gave Syria's flawed truce a three percent chance of holding while U.S. officials, pointing to continued army shelling of rebel strongholds, questioned whether there was any point adding to the handful of international monitors in place.
France said it put no faith in the ceasefire because Assad was not sincere and even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Syria had yet to show it is committed to peace.
But behind doubts and skepticism over the partial ceasefire and the protracted wrangling to establish a credible monitoring mission, Assad's critics know they have few other levers to end the violence in Syria.
Still reluctant to consider military force and facing Russian and Chinese opposition to U.N. sanctions on Damascus, they have little diplomatic muscle to back up their noisy rhetoric against the Syrian leader.
The truce, brokered by international mediator Kofi Annan, came into effect last week. Activists say Syria has violated it by shelling Homs and other opposition strongholds and failing to withdraw heavy weapons from cities.
The government says rebels have carried out at least three major bombings and killed dozens of people.
"Although they are pessimistic about the potential for success, there is a growing consensus that the only other way to depose Assad in the short term is military intervention, which most sides are firmly opposed to," said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"I am not convinced that U.S. and Europe would be willing to call this mission off and announce failure of the Annan plan entirely without an alternative track."
NO "PLAN B"
A "Friends of Syria" meeting in Paris on Thursday described Annan's peace plan as a "last hope" to avert full-scale civil war after 13 months of turmoil in which the United Nations says Assad's forces have killed at least 9,000 people.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the U.N. Security Council to prepare a sanctions resolution tightening pressure on Assad to comply with the ceasefire and agree to an adequate monitoring mission.
But she acknowledged that any proposed sanctions resolution at this stage would probably be blocked by Moscow, which has close military ties with Assad's government and has vetoed two earlier draft resolutions against Damascus along with China.
"I am skeptical whether there is a viable Plan B in terms of taking this to the Security Council," said Barnes-Dacey. "Russian opposition is going to be an obstacle to that."
While the Western and Arab warnings aim to keep pressure on Assad to comply with the ceasefire, the barrage of downbeat statements may simply undermine the mission before it is fully up and running.
"It's unfortunate that some countries have not fully supported the plan," said one Western diplomat in the region. "If you say it's got a 3 percent chance, it further decreases the likelihood of success."
WORDS NOT ACTION
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who along with Qatar has called for arming and funding the anti-Assad rebels, said in Paris that as long as the violence continued, foreign powers should "at the very least ... help the Syrians defend themselves".
But, like other powers caught up in Syria's crisis which also include neighboring Turkey, the Gulf states may fail to follow up their strong words with actions, leaving Annan's ceasefire plan as the only viable option.
"Given the absolute lack of any stomach for U.S. intervention, Turkey's unwillingness to intervene unless it is under U.S. and European leadership, and the clear signs of posturing from Saudi Arabia but lack of any real follow-up, I don't see the strategic purpose of collapsing the Annan agreement," said Shashank Joshi of the military think-tank RUSI.
From Syria's perspective, Assad may also have a strong interest in ensuring the ceasefire stays in place.
An agreement reached between the United Nations and Syria this week makes specific demands on Syrian rebels as well as the government, effectively assigning joint responsibility for a cessation of the bloodshed.
That marks a diplomatic achievement for authorities in Damascus which have said since the outset of the uprising against Assad that they are battling foreign-backed militants.
The truce also offers a chance for Assad to regroup his army and security forces after weeks of offensives against rebel strongholds in Damascus, Homs, Idlib and Deraa. While inflicting great suffering on targeted populations, these may also have psychologically drained all but his elite units.
"It's demoralizing conducting counter-insurgency operations, shelling urban areas and having troops deploy away from home," Joshi said. "These place enormous strains on armed forces. And he has very limited numbers of elite units that are available, so there are benefits to his military strategy from the ceasefire."
But a pause in the bloodshed would also provide an opportunity for Assad's opponents, allowing armed groups to consolidate and encouraging protesters back on to the streets.
"I think (Assad) has every interest in having the observer mission, but he also has an interest in making sure the mission does not become overly large, overly mobile or overly effective," Joshi said.
(editing by David Stamp)