Syria Protest
A boy with the Syrian opposition flag painted on his face shows the victory sign in front of a burnt picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at a demonstration in Sidon, Lebanon, Sunday. Reuters

In the latest blow to international efforts to stem the spiraling bloodshed in Syria, the United Nations has announced it is suspending its observer mission.

Citing intensifying clashes between government troops and rebel groups, the observer mission's chief said Saturday that the unarmed monitors would stop conducting patrols until further notice. Gen. Robert Mood of Norway said in a statement that the observers would remain in Syria but charged that the violence is limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects.

There is a push toward advancing military positions, rather than seeking a peaceful resolution, Mood said, calling for a scenario in which those who have their fingers on the trigger, whoever they are, make the decision to take their fingers off the triggers and give the Syrian people a chance to move forward.

The decision to suspend the observer mission is yet another indication that diplomacy is unlikely to halt the conflict engulfing Syria. A Syrian dissident told Reuters that the U.N. mission did nothing for the Syrian people.

On the contrary, it provided cover for the regime to kill and commit crimes, the rebel said.

The observers were central to a ceasefire framework crafted by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general who is serving as the organization's special envoy to Syria. Annan's plan attempted to balance rising calls for action on Syria against Russia's strident opposition to any sort of direct intervention that could see President Bashar al-Assad removed from power.

In February, Russia joined China in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have called for Assad to relinquish power. The situation has worsened since then, but Russia has continued to stand behind Assad. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparked a wave of recriminations this week when she said Russia was furnishing the Assad regime with attack helicopters; Russia said it was merely carrying out existing contracts to repair equipment for the Syrian army.

The Obama administration has resisted calls to arm the Syrian rebels, citing fears of sending weaponry to an that opposition remains fractured and largely unknown. The Assad regime has stayed in power in part because of a patronage system that exploits sectarian divisions running through the country, raising fears that the current conflict could devolve into a conflict between different religious groups.

Congress largely shares the White House's reluctance to engage further. While a small group of lawmakers led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has advocated arming the rebels, most lawmakers are wary of becoming entangled in another complex Middle Eastern conflict at a time when America's long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawing to a close.

But the apparently intractable conflict still poses a threat of spilling into other countries. Iran has long been a powerful patron of the Assad regime, and Syria in turn plays a significant role in guiding the politics of neighboring Lebanon.

The problem is that if we do nothing and Syria explodes, we have a broader conflict in the Middle East, a senior American diplomat told the New York Times.