The suspension is a major setback to diplomatic efforts and could put new pressure on Syrian allies Iran and Russia.
CAIRO - The United Nations said Saturday that it was suspending its observer mission in Syria because of the escalating violence, the most severe blow yet to months of effort by the U.N. to negotiate a peace plan and prevent Syria's descent into civil war.
The United Nations said the monitors would not be withdrawn from Syria, but rather were being locked down in Syria's most contested cities, unable to conduct patrols. While the decision to suspend their work was made chiefly to protect the unarmed monitors, the unstated purpose appeared to be to force Russia to intervene and assure that the observers are not the targets of Syrian forces or their sympathizers. Russia has opposed Western intervention and, by some accounts, continues to arm the forces of President Bashar Assad.
For President Obama, the suspension of the observers' activities -- unless it is reversed quickly -- could signal the failure of the latest effort by the West to reach a diplomatic solution and ease Assad from power.
'Our options aren't any better'
But Obama's choices are no better than they were when the uprising in Syria began nearly a year and a half ago. A bombing campaign like the one conducted last year by NATO in Libya with strong U.S. and Arab League support is not feasible in Syria: The battle is being waged in crowded cities, with little chance to attack the Syrian army without the risk of high civilian casualties.
Obama, NATO nations and the Arab League have never wanted to send in a ground force, which would probably face heavy casualties in what many fear is emerging as a civil war.
The White House on Saturday again calling on Syria to uphold commitments it has made in recent months, "including the full implementation of a cease-fire."
The Syrian uprising, which began 16 months ago, has become one of the most intractable and deadliest conflicts of the Arab Spring, with reports of at least four massacres in recent weeks, including the accounts of killings of as many as 78 civilians, many of them women and children.
The administration is still resisting calls to arm the disparate rebel groups, for fear that they are not an organized force and that the groups could eventually turn on one another. "The problem is that if we do nothing and Syria explodes, we have a broader conflict in the Middle East," a senior U.S. diplomat said before the U.N. announcement. "But our options aren't any better than they were a year ago."
The observers had been the foundation of a six-point peace plan that Kofi Annan, the special envoy to Syria, had sought to hammer out with the consent of Assad and his foreign sponsors, including Russia and Iran.
'Increasing the losses on both sides'
The leader of the observer mission, Gen. Robert Mood, said he had little choice but to suspend the mission. Escalating violence across Syria over the past 10 days had prevented the teams from carrying out their mandate to verify events on the ground. They have repeatedly been attacked by pro-government supporters.
"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men women and children are being killed every day," Mood said.
By mid-July the original 90-day mandate for the observers will expire. But the suspension, if prolonged, will focus new pressure on those governments allied with Syria, particular Russia and Iran.