As Syria diplomacy falters, U.S., Russia trade verbal blows

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BEIRUT -- The Syria crisis has at times taken on the trappings of a Cold War conflict, featuring a steady flow of nasty invective between Washington and Moscow, a pair of global heavyweights unable to agree on a way to stop the carnage.

On Wednesday, as battles continued to rage across Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took another swipe at his Western adversary, lambasting Washington’s failure to condemn last week’s Damascus bombing, which took the lives of four of President Bashar Assad’s top security lieutenants.

“This is a direct justification of terrorism,” Lavrov said of the U.S. reaction, Interfax reported. “What should we make of this?”

Asked later about the comments, Victoria Nuland, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, was unapologetic. She distinguished between an attack against civilians and one targeting officials of Assad’s government.


“We condemn all terrorist attacks, all bombings of targets, of civilians,” Nuland told reporters in Washington. “I would note that these were not civilians. These were the organizers of Assad’s military campaign who lost their lives.”

As the superpowers exchanged rhetorical blows about Syria, international diplomacy seemed close to running its course.

The United Nations observer team in Syria has a new general, but he inherits a shrunken command, mostly confined to hotels. The observer force -- whose task is to monitor a cease-fire and peace plan that never took hold -- will be down to about half its force of 300 members by Thursday, the U.N. said. Most activities were suspended last month because of the violence.

The force’s diminished status seems an apt metaphor for fading hope for a diplomatic solution.

Last week, the Security Council gave the monitors what would appear to be a final 30-day lease on life. The term could be extended if the observers determine that violence has been reduced and that both sides have ceased using “heavy weapons.” The renewed fighting in Aleppo and elsewhere in recent days would not seem to suggest that a dramatic turnaround is imminent.

“We are back with the hope that wisdom will prevail,” Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, the Senegalese military man who now heads the mission, told reporters in Damascus. “That there will be, in this tunnel, some light; and that we can seize and obtain less violence.”

Accompanying him was Herve Ladsous, chief of U.N. peacekeepers, who has gone on record calling the Syrian conflict a civil war, a view widely endorsed outside Syria but seemingly rejected by all sides in the country, a rare point of convergence in the strife-ridden nation.

“I think diplomats have to be optimistic, and that’s no joke,” the veteran French diplomat responded when asked whether he held out hope for faltering U.N. peace efforts. “We have to have hope.”


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-- Patrick J. McDonnell