BOCA RATON - It is too early to write off as a failure UN-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan's efforts to bring an end to 14-months of violence in Syria, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on Thursday.
Rice spoke to Reuters in Florida hours after two suicide car bombers killed 55 people and wounded 372 in Damascus, Syrian state media said, the deadliest attacks in the Syrian capital since an uprising against President Bashar Assad began last year.
"I don't think it's time yet to say that the (UN truce monitoring) mission and the Annan initiative has failed," Rice said. "Although we've been skeptical of the Syrian government's readiness and willingness to implement its commitments, what Annan is trying to do makes eminent sense and we support it."
Earlier this week, Rice told the UN Security Council that Assad's government has not fully complied with any of the six points of Annan's peace plan, which calls for a withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from towns, an end to violence on all sides and talks with the opposition on a "political transition."
Rice said Washington was stepping up "non-lethal" aid to Syria's fractious opposition to help unify and strengthen it.
Annan's plan also calls for the deployment of up to 300 unarmed observers to monitor the truce that started on April 12 and brought a brief dip in violence, but never fully took hold across the country of 22 million people.
The Annan initiative, Rice said, could end the violence and result in a transition to a government without Assad if fully implemented. "It is perhaps the last best opportunity to try to resolve this crisis through peaceful means," she added.
US President Barack Obama's administration has said it is giving the Syrian opposition logistical and communications help, but it has shied away from providing arms.
"We think that that's not a wise step at this point," Rice said about arming the rebels. "We are backing the opposition in the sense of providing political support, providing material support, but it's non-lethal material support - communications equipment, medical supplies and the like."
Rice said Thursday's bombings were "a great example that this situation is already militarized and violent enough and we don't think it's wise to contribute to that by pouring more weapons or armaments into it."
Washington does not know who was responsible for Thursday's bombings, Rice said, though she reiterated that the Syrian government was ultimately to blame for the escalation of violence over the last year.
"We've seen some evidence of extremist activity increasing and it may be that what happened today is a manifestation of that," she said.
Asked what else the United States could do to promote peace in Syria, Rice said the Obama administration was working with allies to tighten sanctions outside the United Nations and ratchet up the pressure on Assad. Russia and China have made clear they would veto any attempt to impose UN sanctions on Damascus.
Rice spoke to Reuters ahead of a speech she gave in Boca Raton, Florida at the B'Nai Torah Congregation synagogue in which she defended the administration's record of supporting Israel at the United Nations, a sensitive topic as Obama looks ahead to the November presidential election.
Although Rice received two standing ovations from the crowd of about 500 attendees, roughly a dozen people holding small Israeli flags stood up during her opening remarks and marched silently out of the auditorium.
Anna Cohen, one of the protesters, said the demonstration was intended to criticize the administration's "hostility" toward Israel.
During a question-and-answer session, Rabbi David Steinhardt said some members of the Jewish community felt "ill at ease" with aspects of Obama's policies toward Israel.
Rice acknowledged "frustration" with some discussions at the United Nations on Israel, but argued that the administration has remained a strong Israeli ally.
"America remains deeply and permanently committed to the state of Israel," she said.