The UN in Syria: The Debate to Move Beyond Monitoring

This article was published by the Interdependent on June 4th, 2012

Last week, Syria and the world were shocked by news of a massacre in Houla, the largest scale violence since the UN deployed 300 monitors to the country. The monitors were sent to observe the implementation of UN-Arab League Joint Envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, but so far their deployment has failed to stem the violence. The UN doesn’t want to play a passive role in Syria, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said on Thursday, but the institution is struggling to determine what that means.

Ahmed Himmiche (centre left), the head of the UN Military Observers (UNMO) group dispatched to Syria, and his team speak with members of the opposition in El Karak. UN Photo/Neeraj Singh

On Wednesday night, the UN Security Council reaffirmed its commitment to the six-point Annan plan aimed at ending the strife in Syria. The plan calls for a cessation of violence by both sides, free access by humanitarian workers and journalists and political dialogue to solve the crisis. Both sides have violated the plan. On the same day, the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group that engages in combat with regime forces, said it would declare the plan a failure if Bashar al-Assad didn’t comply with the plan’s terms in 48 hours. The two opposing statements were triggered by one event: the massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, which has left 108 dead so far, according to the UN monitors, including 49 children.

Only 20 fatalities were caused by shelling; the rest were shot at close range or even killed with knives, the U.N. monitors stated after seeing the bodies. On Wednesday, there were reports of another brutal killing; the UN found 13 men who were executed at close range with their hands tied behind their back in Deir Ez-Zor. Such killings have highlighted again that the Annan plan, so far, has failed to stem the violence. So far, more than 10,000 people have been killed and half a million have been displaced since the conflict started in March 2011, according to the UN.

A Mission Fraught with Concern

The UN’s Special Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) consists of the deployment of 300 military monitors, 297 of whom have been deployed as of Wednesday. The mission is just over a third into its 90-day mandate, as determined by resolution 2043 on 21 April, 2012.

However, concerns remain about whether the UN monitoring mission has sufficient resources to properly execute its mandate. From the very beginning, concerns were raised about the small number of monitors, which amount to roughly one for every 238 square miles.

Furthermore, many cannot afford and are too scared to venture outside of Damascus. The mission is underpaid, earning a daily stipend of 230 dollars a day that has to cover board, transport and food, according to reports by a UN diplomat.

General Robert Mood, the veteran peacekeeper who heads the mission, has repeatedly expressed dismay at what the team has witnessed but the monitors are unable to do more than report.

Even in this, the team is restricted. An activist told Al Jazeera they had alerted nearby U.N. monitors of the massacre happening on Friday, but were told the mission could not leave at night. “We still hear repeated reports of the regime shepherding the monitors to certain areas and blocking access. They were also not allowed the helicopters as they were pushing for earlier. But they don’t have the numbers to override the regime, who are playing a game with them,” says Christopher Philips, a lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary University in London. “It is not unlike the situation with the arms inspectors in the 90s with Saddam Hussein,” he adds.

Under-Secretary General for Peace Keeping Operations Herve Ladsous has also expressed his concern about the deliberate targeting of UN monitoring staff, calling the practice “totally unacceptable.” “Attacks continue to target UNSMIS observers deliberately. It happened yesterday and again this morning. Wherever they go, they are being shot at, regularly,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

“We call them a lot of times to come, they try, but ‘Mafrak Kefr Aya’ checkpoint fires at them, and they hide in a building,” Homs-based activist Abo Bakr Saleh told the Interdependent via Skype.

Asked about the mission’s effectiveness, he said, “The Syrian regime kills people every day, with UN monitors [in country] or without them.” Annan placed the mission’s perceived failure in a different light, saying such conclusions were hasty and a misinterpretation of the monitors’ role. “I get very distressed when I read in the press that the monitors have not stopped the war, that the monitors have failed. They did not come here to take on the fighters. They came to offer an opportunity for people to make a choice: to accept the cessation of the violence and to through the six-point plan leading to political settlement,” Annan told reporters Tuesday.

However, by Thursday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon employed stronger language. “Let me state plainly, however: The UN did not deploy in Syria just to bear witness to the slaughter of innocents,” he said. “We are not there to play the role of passive observer to unspeakable atrocities,” he said at a summit in Turkey.

No Plan B

However, the West is unlikely to give up on the Annan Plan. On Wednesday evening, Ambassador Rice, U.S. ambassador to the UN, reiterated U.S. support. Indeed, there are few other options available, with UN Secretary General having admitted that “there is no Plan B.”

“The reason the Annan plan has been backed so significantly is because China and Russia support it. To reject it means going back to the drawing board and getting China and Russia to sign up to something else. This is only possible if Russia and China agree to do something better; until they have that, it is counterproductive to declare it a failure,” said Philips.

Jean Marie Guehenno, Joint Arab-League and UN Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan’s deputy, told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday he believed they understood that Syria sliding into full war would be catastrophic, and emphasised the need for action. “The Security Council now needs to have that kind of strategic discussion on how that [the civil war] needs to be avoided,” he said on Wednesday evening, citing the need for political negotiations between the government and the opposition.

Yet this strategic discussion will not include Security Council sanctions measures; China and Russia reiterated their opposition to further UN action on Wednesday. “China opposes military intervention in Syria and opposes regime change by force,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing. Russia had already indicated it did not intend to take further measures, and Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov reiterated that position, telling the Interfax news agency: “We believe that a review now by the Security Council of any new measures on the situation would be premature.” Both powers hold veto power in the Security Council, thus ensuring that further measures such as sanctions or even military action by the UN body remain off the table.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice stated that the killing should have “consequences” for Assad. “The Syrian government has blatantly violated its commitments; if it continues to do that, there should be consequences,” she said following an UNSC update by Annan’s deputy to the UNSC on Wednesday.

So far, consequences have been limited to statements of condemnation and a dozen countries expelling their Syrian diplomats.
The U. Human Rights Council will hold a Special Session on the deteriorating human rights situation in Syria and the Houla massacre in particular on Friday, the fourth it has held since the conflict began.

UN Human Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has repeatedly expressed her concern about Syria, on Sunday reiterating the accusation that the regime may be committing crimes against humanity.

Has the ceasefire already ended?

For now, violence on both sides looks set to intensify. Rebel Colonel Qassim Saadeddine of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) issued the 48-hour ultimatum on Wednesday, saying that opposition fighters will no longer be bound by the UN-brokered ceasefire unless the government upholds its part of six-point Kofi Annan peace plan.

The army has continued to shell areas, and Syrians have fought back, although they feel that this is negligible: “What can a Kalashnikov do in the face of a tank?” one activist said.

If the government failed to comply by Friday at 9 a.m., “We are free from any commitment and we will defend and protect the civilians, their villages and their cities,” the statement said. But on Thursday, Colonel Riaad al-Asaad, a spokesperson for the FSA based in Turkey said he wanted the UN to lend legitimacy to a return to fighting. “There is no deadline, but we want Kofi Annan to issue a declaration announcing the failure of this plan so that we would be free to carry out any military operation against the regime,” Asaad told Al Jazeera television. Omar Shakir, a Syrian activist, told the Interdependent that this was merely a formalization. “The ceasefire has already ended, nobody can stay silent after this massacre in Houla. The Free Syrian Army made several operations to show the regime that we can defend ourselves, but until now we are trying to stay with the Annan plan.” Prospects of the Assad regime adhering to the plan remain grim. “Assad will fall immediately if he follows the Annan plan; if he takes the tanks out of the cities, people will demonstrate more and more; he will never do this,” he added.

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