An advance team of 25 United Nations military observers are headed to Syria after the Security Council authorized their deployment to monitor a cease- fire at risk from reported shelling by security forces in Homs.
The UN’s 15-member council voted unanimously yesterday to dispatch a first wave of monitors and urged President Bashar al- Assad to “implement visibly its commitments in their entirety” under a six-point cease-fire plan from UN special envoy Kofi Annan. A bigger mission will follow, if conditions allow it.
The truce was already being tested as the UN’s most powerful body passed its first binding measures to stem a 13- month-old conflict that has killed more than 9,000. Inspired by revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Libya, the Syrian uprising is evolving into a civil war with sectarian undertones.
“We are under no illusions,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, told the council after passage of the resolution. “Two days of diminished violence, after a year of murderous rampage, hardly proves that the regime is serious about honoring its commitments.”
Syria’s army today shelled residential districts in Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. In the Aleppo area, government forces and rebels clashed and a police station was attacked with bombs, the U.K. based rights group said.
Days after an April 12 cease-fire was declared, reports emerged of soldiers opening fire on protesters in the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Hama. Syrian security forces killed 27 people across the country, an umbrella opposition group called the Local Coordination Committees, said in a statement yesterday.
The UN council said yesterday it “expresses its intention to assess the implementation of this resolution and to consider further steps as appropriate.” The UN’s decision-making body alone can authorize sanctions, referrals to the International Criminal Court and military intervention.
“Syrian forces resumed their brutal shelling of Homs, and shot innocent mourners at a funeral in Aleppo,” said Rice, who holds the Security Council presidency this month. “This resumed violence casts serious doubts yet again on the regime’s commitment to a cessation of violence.”
Homs, a flashpoint of the uprising seeking to topple Assad’s rule, has been the target of a military campaign by the regime, which says it’s fighting terrorists in the city.
Before the cease-fire, the death toll in Syria often exceeded 100 a day, reaching 9,000 since the start of the uprising, according to the UN. A prolonged lull would allow deployment of unarmed monitors in the country, while failure of the cease-fire may prompt calls for outside military intervention.
The language and tone of the resolution was scaled back to secure approval from Russia, which has been allied with Assad’s regime and twice vetoed attempts at the Security Council to hold him accountable for the violence.
Russia has a stake in the survival of a Soviet-era ally, selling the Assad regime weapons during the uprising. Still, the government in Moscow has leaned on the Syrian government to accept the cease-fire terms and let monitors into the country.
“For many months now the situation in Syria has been the subject of the fixed attention and alarm of the international community, and it’s understandable,” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the council after the vote. “There have been too many casualties” and there are “too many destructive consequences if the crisis continues to ratchet up.”
Amnesty International led human-rights activists in calling the compromise resolution “underwhelming.”
Radhwan Zyadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, told Al Jazeera that Syrians were “frustrated” by the one-year wait for a resolution that achieves a bare “minimum,” given Russia’s position.
Assad, 46, is fighting for the survival of his Alawite family’s four-decade hold on power. While more than 70 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni, Assad and the ruling elite are in a minority, belonging to an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that predominates in Iran and which stands to lose privileges should he fall.
The UN has had monitors and political officers in the Middle East and other regions since the 1940s, the most recent a group of 180 observers sent to oversee the end of the civil war in Nepal.
A UN presence in Syria involving 250 personnel will be trying to cover a much larger country, according to Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center on International Cooperation.
Their safety in Syria will also be a concern. In 2006, during the war in southern Lebanon, four UN monitors were killed by Israeli fire. In 1998, a team of 1,400 observers were deployed to try to calm the situation in Kosovo yet were pulled out the following year as Yugoslav security forces continued to carry out atrocities.
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