In an abrupt move, Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, has resigned his position as head of a UN Security Council peace-making mission to Syria.
The news signals the end of any realistic hope for a political solution to the raging conflict that has torn apart the country and left as many as 20,000 people dead.
"The increasing militarization on the ground [in Syria] and the clear lack of unity in the Security Council have fundamentally changed the circumstances for the effective exercise of my role," Mr. Annan said, reading from a prepared statement Thursday.
"It's a bad sign," said Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "I guess it means he's given up hope of getting the backing he needs from the external parties for a substantive dialogue with the [Syrian] regime. And he's given up on getting any meaningful engagement from the regime and opposition."
"He's not wrong," Dr. Sayigh added. "This conflict is going to go on for a very long time."
Within weeks of taking the assignment this spring, Mr. Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, had devised a six-point plan that would allow the protagonists in Syria to step down in stages.
It included the withdrawal of military forces from urban centres, a cessation of hostilities by both sides and negotiations for a gradual handover of power to democratically elected leaders
But neither side would have anything to do with it, beyond saying they would not abide by it.
"The bloodshed continues, most of all because of the Syrian government's intransigence, and continuing refusal to implement the six-point plan, and also because of the escalating military campaign of the opposition, all of which is compounded by the disunity of the international community," Mr. Annan said.
"The plan was doomed to fail," said a former senior official in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Neither the opposition nor the regime showed any inclination to compromise," said the former official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
"Neither side has put forward a realistic agenda for what to do when the conflict is over," he said. "They are only interested in destroying the other side."
Mr. Annan didn't disagree with such an analysis, but in responding to reporters' questions at a hastily assembled press conference Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, said he had felt obliged to take on what some called a "mission impossible."
"The severity of the humanitarian costs of the conflict, and the exceptional threats posed by this crisis to international peace and security, justified the attempts to secure a peaceful transition to a political settlement, however daunting the challenge," Mr. Annan said.
He blamed international leaders for not accepting responsibility to act.
"At a time when we need – when the Syrian people desperately need – action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council."
Countries such as Russia, China and Iran must do more to persuade the regime of Mr. al-Assad to end the conflict and to step down, Mr. Annan said emphatically. And countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States must do more than simply root for the opposition to triumph.
As the news of Mr. Annan's resignation was becoming known, the U.S. State Department announced a further $12-million (U.S.) in humanitarian assistance for Syrian civilians. That brings the total for Washington's humanitarian relief to $76-million.
That aid is separate from the "non-lethal" assistance being given directly to Syrian rebels by agencies such as the CIA. On Wednesday, Washington announced an increase of $10-million in that aid, mostly for communications equipment and medical supplies, bringing the total commitment to $25-million in aid to the rebels.
"After nearly 17 months of conflict, the humanitarian situation is dire and rapidly deteriorating," a White House statement said Thursday. The U.S. aid, it said, will help "provide lifesaving assistance and reduce human suffering."
Mr. Annan, 74, said he would remain in office until his appointment expires at the end of August.
Asked by reporters if he could imagine anyone taking on the task after that, the career diplomat replied: "The world is full of crazy people like me, so don't be surprised if someone else decides to take it on."