By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - As Syria spirals deeper into a full-scale civil war, Western delegations at the United Nations are increasingly skeptical about the value of appointing a replacement for Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League mediator in the conflict, U.N. envoys say.
When he announced his departure, Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said he was not able to carry out his job with the U.N. Security Council's veto powers hopelessly deadlocked. Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is backing Damascus, while the United States, Britain and France are calling for Assad's ouster.
That deadlock persists, and is now complicating the question of whether U.N. diplomatic mediation will continue at all.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was in discussions with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby on a possible successor to ensure that the diplomatic track is kept open. Ban's spokesman said he hoped to announce a successor soon.
Russia, which expressed regret that Annan chose to step down, is also determined to have someone replace Annan to keep a U.N.-led diplomatic track open. Other council members such as China, South Africa and Pakistan agree with Moscow.
But the Americans, council diplomats say, see little point in replacing Annan. They had grown increasingly frustrated with the veteran diplomat's refusal to step aside after it became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would continue to veto any attempt to impose U.N. sanctions on Damascus to force it to end the onslaught against an increasingly militarized opposition.
The Obama administration is instead moving, albeit cautiously, to increase its backing for anti-Assad rebels.
"The Americans gave up on the Security Council route back in October after Russia's first veto and have unenthusiastically supported the European push in New York since then," one council envoy said on condition of anonymity. "They also feel Annan took too long to concede failure."
After announcing he would step down on Aug 31, Annan said, "The increasing militarization on the ground and the clear lack of unity in the Security Council have fundamentally changed the circumstances for the effective exercise of my role."
"While the Security Council is trapped in stalemate, so too is Syria," Annan wrote in an editorial in the Financial Times.
Russia, with the aid of China, vetoed three resolutions criticizing and threatening sanctions against Damascus for its 17-month attempt to use military force and heavy arms to crush an increasingly militant opposition. One senior Western envoy said over 20,000 people have been killed by Assad's forces.
Despite European public statements of support for Ban's determination to replace Annan, some European diplomats privately voiced skepticism about appointing someone to a job that appears headed for failure.
"Who's going to take that job?" one council diplomat said. "If Annan couldn't succeed, who else could? It's a lost cause at the moment, though that could change in the future. Assad could fall any day and no one would be surprised."
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U.N. officials say that Annan's replacement must be someone of similar stature. Among the names circulating at the United Nations as possible replacements for Annan, envoys told Reuters, are two Spaniards - former Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
Two envoys spoke of a possible Malaysian candidate as well. Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari's name has also come up, though one diplomat told Reuters that the Finn, who was the other candidate when Ban selected Annan at the beginning of this year, was not among the main candidates.
Richard Gowan of New York University made clear that the U.N. had a role to play in improving the plight of civilians.
"I doubt that any U.N. envoy can really prevent the current conflict getting worse, although the U.N. has an absolute obligation to keep up efforts to get humanitarian aid into the country alongside the Red Cross and Red Crescent," he said.
France said the Security Council would hold a meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria on August 30.
Later this month, the Security Council is expected to allow the renewed 30-day mandate of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria to expire. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice made clear last month that Washington saw no point in keeping the unarmed monitoring force, which severely curtailed its activities in June due to the escalating violence, in Syria.
Rice said the council had hit a "substantive dead end" on Syria and that Washington was looking outside the world body for ways to tackle the crisis.
Washington has since made clear that it will step up support to the rebels, though Western officials have made clear there is little appetite among NATO members to intervene in the messy Syria conflict as it did in Libya last year.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud, president of the council this month, said last week that the 15-nation body was "irreconcilably deadlocked" on Syria.
This has infuriated Russia, which has made clear it wants U.N. monitors to remain in Syria. Ban, who is determined to keep a U.N. foothold in Syria, is expected to recommend a new type of U.N. presence next week, officials at the world body say.
Russia and the Western powers accuse each other of sabotaging Annan's attempts to secure an end to the fighting in Syria with a ceasefire in April that never took hold and a six-point peace plan that the government and rebels accepted but failed to implement.
Russia accused the United States and Europeans of rejecting "reasonable" proposals, suggesting they were being hell-bent on Libyan-style "regime change." U.S. and European officials said Moscow's repeated vetoes of attempts on the council to put pressure on Assad had torpedoed Annan's diplomacy.
Moscow, like Syria, accuses the Western powers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting and arming the rebels, while the United States and their European allies routinely criticize Russia for continuing to supply weapons to Assad's government.
According to David Bosco, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington, there really is no U.N.-led diplomatic process in Syria and Annan's decision to step down simply made that clear.
"The UN made it look as if there was a peace process and now that veneer is gone," Bosco said. "When the (Assad) regime falls, there could be a return to the U.N. The council could agree a peacekeeping or stabilization force."
For the time being, the United States and its ally will bypass the U.N. Security Council and focus their efforts on gathering allies to aid Syria's fractious rebel groups.
It is not the first time Washington bypassed the council.
The United States did so in 1999 in Kosovo, when Russia used its veto power to block authorization for military intervention against Serbian forces and militias in the predominantly Albanian province of Serbia. NATO launched a bombing campaign that eventually led to the withdrawal of Serbian forces.
It did so again in 2003, when France, Russia and other council members made clear they could not support an explicit authorization of military force against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Washington led an invasion that then U.N. chief Annan eventually described as "illegal."
(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer in Paris; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)