UNITED NATIONS - The UN Security Council decided Thursday to terminate its observer mission in Syria, where the increasingly violent clashes between government forces and opposition fighters have left diplomatic peacemaking efforts paralysed.

But the 15-member council agreed to keep a much smaller United Nations liaison office in the country.

France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, who is the current president of the council, announced the decision after a closed meeting held to deliberate the future of the observer mission, three days before its mandate expires.

Araud also said that the council had approved a request by Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, to maintain some kind of presence in Syria, with the exact nature and size of that presence still to be determined. There had been widespread expectations that the 15-member council would decide not to renew the observer mission’s mandate because of the violence in Syria, which has basically confined the observer staff to its Damascus hotel for the past two months. Even there, the monitors have not been insulated from the conflict: a bomb in a fuel tanker exploded outside the hotel on Wednesday. None of the observer mission members was hurt.

The observer mission was created as part of the six-point peace plan for Syria created by Kofi Annan, the special envoy for the UN and the Arab League, who announced his resignation two weeks ago in frustration over his failure to get the forces of President Bashar al-Assad or his adversaries to halt the conflict, now 18 months old. No replacement for Annan has yet been announced, although speculation has intensified that Ban was seeking to recruit another veteran diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi of Algeria.

Annan’s plan remains the diplomatic framework adopted by the United Nations and the Arab League to halt the Syrian conflict. “The mandate of UNSMIS is over on the 19th of August ... UNSMIS will fade out,” said Araud, who is the president of the Security Council for the month of August.

He said conditions for renewing the mandate of the observer mission, known as UNSMIS, had not been met. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the permanent Security Council members - Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain - and key regional players would meet on Syria in New York on Friday morning.

“We’re sorry that the UNSMIS mandate is coming to an end,” he told reporters. “We believe that those members of the council who insisted that UNSMIS can’t continue, did not really show commitment to ending hostilities and to working toward a political settlement in Syria.” Russia had repeatedly called for the monitors to remain in Syria. But the United States opposes keeping them in the country as long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces continued to escalate their 17-month-old onslaught against an increasingly armed and determined opposition.

Moscow, with the aid of Beijing, has vetoed three resolutions criticising and threatening sanctions against Syria. That has led to an impasse on the council, UN diplomats say. The Security Council said last month it would only renew the mandate of the mission, which was deployed in April to monitor a truce that never took hold, if the world body confirmed a “cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a reduction in the level of violence by all sides sufficient” for it to operate.

In an August 10 letter to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this has not been achieved and the mission “has not been able to exercise its key functions of monitoring the cessation of violence.” Deputy UN peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet told reporters that the mission’s legal mandate would expire at midnight New York time on Sunday and the last military observers would be out of Syria by August 24.

“It is clear that both sides have chosen the path of war, open conflict and the space for political dialogue and cessation of hostilities and mediation is very, very reduced at this point, but that doesn’t mean we should not be engaged in that,” Mulet told reporters after privately briefing the council. “The situation on the ground is extremely difficult,” he said. “But the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean that we should not face that challenge of trying to open those political spaces in the future.”

The mission’s initial 300 unarmed observers suspended most of their activity on June 16 because of increased risk from rising violence. UNSMIS now has over 70 civilian staff working issues such as aid access and monitoring human rights abuses.

Mulet said UNSMIS would be replaced with a UN political liaison office with 20 to 30 people, including military advisers and human rights, aid and demining experts.