Syria’s Pivotal Moment

This article was published by the Interdependent on 27 April, 2012.

Over the weekend, the world welcomed a unanimous vote by the Security Council on resolution 2043, which authorizes the UN observer mission in Syria to expand its strength from 30 to 300. The UN-Arab League Special Envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, called it a “pivotal moment for the stabilization of the country.”Image

Crowds of locals surround the recently-dispatched UN monitoring team as they walk through the streets of Homs, Syria. UN Photo/Neeraj Singh

The mission’s mandate over the next 90 days will be to observe the implementation of a ceasefire, the initial step in the Annan Six Point Plan aimed at bringing the fighting in Syria to an end. The plan also calls for humanitarian assistance, the release of arbitrarily detained persons, the granting of free access to journalists, the right to freely demonstrate and an inclusive political process to address the concerns of the Syrian people.

When the ceasefire went into effect on April 12, it brought about the first lull in violence since the conflict started 13 months ago. On April 18, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed concern that violence was again escalating, and that the Syrian regime had failed to uphold its side of the bargain. Reports of shelling by the regime were widespread in the subsequent days, and heavy weapons have not been removed from city centers. The opposition is also violating the terms of the agreement by continuing to attack the Syrian Army; the regime reported a large bombing in the southwestern city of Quneitra on Friday.

The observer mission is meant to clarify such reports. Since last Sunday, an initial six-man advance mission team, headed by Moroccan Colonel Ahmed Himmiche, has been on the ground, although in its initial days, it has primarily worked to bring down expectations. “I am not a specialist in human rights issues, I am a military man. I’ve seen the reality and I’ve seen everything with my own eyes. Everything will be mentioned in the report,” Colonel Himmiche tried to explain to anguished protesters in Dara’a on Thursday, shown in a film by Ugarit News.

So far, activists have remained skeptical of the mission amid the reports of heavy army presence and shooting throughout the country. “We want the UN mission to succeed, but we don’t want it to be used as a stalling tactic to buy time [so the regime can] continue with the repression,” says Edward Dark, a Syrian activist. He echoes the sentiment expressed by many activists, who are worried that lack of a clear mandate for the mission and the mission’s small size will simply buy the Assad regime time to regroup, rather than bringing an end to the violence.

Is it enough?

From the outset, the UN observer mission will have a challenge unprecedented in previous international deployments. Usually, observers are only deployed after a cease-fire has taken hold. In Syria, by contrast, the observers’ role is to ensure a cease-fire is implemented on the ground. “The conditions [for deploying observers] are not fully there,” Arthur Boutellis, an analyst at the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think tank, told AP. “That’s why the UN and the secretary general are stretching a bit the use of observers. It’s part of a political strategy.” Among the most contentious issues is the recognition of the opposition. “Assad will not want to appear to recognize the rebels,” Michael Doyle, an expert on the UN at the Council for Foreign Relations told the Interdependent.

Political complications aside, one of the most prominent criticisms of the mission so far has to do with its size. Syria covers 71,498 square miles, making each single monitor responsible for observing an end to violence in more than 238 square miles.

The Syrian National Council, the main opposition group recognized by the international community, argues that the number of UN monitors should be increased to ensure the mission can effectively survey the country.“We have asked Annan’s group from the first day to increase the number of monitors, because 300 monitors are not enough to protect the Syrian people,” Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the group, told Reuters. “We need at least 3,000 monitors and hope that the number would increase quickly.”

Activists agree. “The voices of the majority are not being heard, those voices are that we don’t in any way accept that only 300 monitors would go into Syria,” says Rami Jarrah, co-director of the Activist News Association (ANA). “One comparison is what happened in Kosovo, which had 2,500 monitors for an area the size of Homs.”

Even Western diplomats worry that the 300 observers won’t be enough. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice expressed concern for the monitors’ safety, which must be guaranteed by the Syrian government. “They will be deployed in numbers too small to cover the entire country, but large enough to give rise to expectations that will be impossible to meet if the Syrian government does not [meet] its commitments toward a sustained cessation of violence,” Rice said Saturday.

In addition to security, there are also concerns about the monitors’ freedom of movement and the provision of air support. A “preliminary understanding” agreed upon by Annan and the Syrian government on Thursday, April 19, guarantees the mission will have complete freedom of movement, according to copy obtained by the Associated Press This freedom of movement was reaffirmed in Saturday’s resolution.

Air support—vital because of Syria’s size—has proven more complicated. Most UN observer missions in the past have been accompanied by air support, but no such provisions have yet been made in the Syrian case.

Furthermore, disagreements still exist between Syria and the United Nations concerning the nationality of observers; Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem called for more observers from China, Russia and India, all allies of the Assad regime. These issues have yet to be decided.

Last or lost hope?

Despite these obstacles, Western nations feel that the mission represents one final opportunity to resolve the Syrian crisis diplomatically. “Though fragile, the Annan mission represents a last hope,” Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said after the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris on Thursday.
Yet on the ground, many activists feel that the crisis has passed the point of high-level dialogue. They also worry that the ceasefire will overshadow the other components of the Annan plan, which activists see as vital. “We only accepted the point calling for negotiations with the Syrian government, because if any of the other points [of the Annan plan] would be implemented, such as freedom of association, the regime would be toppled. But the Syrian government has not complied with the five points, so we won’t comply with the point asking for negotiations [with the regime],” says Jarrah.

Analysts too now fear that the observer mission is too little too late. “[The mission] is already failing,” argues Doyle. “But the decision to declare failure will be political, and this depends on what the alternatives are.”

But most of the other options that have been discussed so far would build on—rather than replace—the Annan plan. Options include a global arms embargo and further economic sanctions, already imposed by the United States and the European Union. “We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for with Kofi Annan’s six-point plan,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Paris conference. “We have to keep Assad off balance by leaving options on the table.”

Nevertheless, Ambassador Rice said on Thursday April 19 that the Annan mission was “perhaps the last best opportunity for this conflict to be resolved through diplomatic means, as opposed to military means.”

Further UN action?

Farther-reaching measures, such as UN Security Council sanctioned military action like that in Libya last year, seem unlikely. Syria has been caught in a tug-of-war between Western countries’ calls for actions and Russian and Chinese reticence—a battle that prevented UN action for the past 13 months. Russia and China vetoed previous resolutions demanding harsh reprimands for Damascus, and they have managed to water down the resolution authorizing the observer mission by removing language which called for further actions if the mission were to fail.

One option that may prove more palatable is the creation of safe areas, but it remains unclear who would provide a mandate for these, as well as provide for their defense. Annan, who was head of the UN Peacekeeping Department between 1993 and 1996, when the Bosnia war and Rwandan genocide took place, is well aware of the risk of establishing safe zones without adequate protection. In 1995, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in the UN safe haven of Srebrenica. In a 1999 report on this massacre, Annan argued that ”safe areas” should never be established again without credible means of defense.

This personal experience also affects his role as Joint-Envoy, in which he has adamantly insisted on the security of the observers. “If someone fires on the observers or there are massacres, it will not be like Bosnia—we will not act as though nothing has happened,” a UN diplomat quoted Annan as saying recently.

General Assembly authorization

With Security Council approval unlikely, a different UN route could be offered by the General Assembly’s “Uniting for Peace” resolution (1950), which allowed for authorization of military action in the Korean Crisis, circumventing the Security Council. In that case, Russia had repeatedly blocked Western intervention. Facing a deadlock in the Council, the resolution—which required a two-thirds majority to pass—called for “collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression with the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

In theory, a UN General Assembly Resolution could offer a UN-sanctioned military path toward ending a conflict that has killed over 9,000 since it started last March. This could include several options, according to Akil Hashem, a former general in the Syrian Army, who recently wrote inForeign Affairs: air strikes; the establishment of a safe zone in Syria on the Turkish border; a hub for defectors; and aid. Less feasible would be the imposition of a full no-fly zone over Syrian or a campaign similar to Libya, given the political climate in the West. Passing such a resolution looks feasible in Syria’s case; a non-binding resolution condemning the violence passed by an overwhelming majority in February.

Meanwhile, international judicial processes may also be able to exert pressure on the regime. Nancy Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has recommended that the regime’s record be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). A Lebanese lawyer filed the first dossier documenting crimes against humanity and war crimes against Assad and 15 other military official and political leaders of the regime with the ICC on Saturday, on behalf of 12 Syrian refugees.

The Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria has also repeatedly expressed its concern about violations of human rights by both sides. In its latest briefing on April 19, the council drew attention to continued shelling and arbitrary arrests, but said it also “continued to receive reports of human rights abuses committed by anti-government armed groups engaged in fighting against the Syrian army during and after the ceasefire, including extra-judicial killings of soldiers captured during armed confrontations.”

Monday morning, shells continued to fall on Homs, despite the presence of UN observers, two of whom remained stationed in Homs after a visit on Sunday. “We don’t really care about paperwork or signing agreements, we care about action on the ground,” deVark, an activist in Syria, said.

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