UN Observers on Mission-to-Fail in Syria Lag on Staffing

The United Nations has recruited only half the 300 military observers it needs to staff its unarmed monitoring force in Syria, a cease-fire mission that one Security Council diplomat said is designed to fail.

The UN is making repeated calls to member states seeking personnel as it tries to deploy the full force by the end of May, said Herve Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. The 24 monitors now deployed are tailed by Syrian police as they try to assess the cease-fire, which Ladsous said both sides are breaking.

The deployment is hindered by the acknowledgment of U.S. and other Security Council diplomats that the mission is likely to fail and that its purpose is to convince Russia and China that stronger measures, which they previously blocked, are needed to force President Bashar al-Assad to stop killing his opponents and civilians. The U.S. will not support extending the mission beyond an initial 90 days if Assad isn’t meeting his obligations, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said last month.

“The point of the mission is not for what the observers will see or do, but instead for what it will allow you to do in the coming months,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy group in Washington.

Planning For Failure

If the deployment fails, Russia and China will have some responsibility to accept stronger measures -- including tighter sanctions and an arms embargo -- sought by the U.S., U.K., France and Arab nations, said a Security Council diplomat, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. The diplomat said that could mean action under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which empowers the Security Council to impose sanctions or authorize military means to enforce its will.

This week’s attacks on the Syrian central bank in Damascus and three blasts in the northern city of Idlib represent attempts by backers of regime change to undermine UN envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website today, condemning the “terror” assaults.

Syrian rebels killed 15 soldiers in an ambush near Aleppo, Al Arabiya television reported today, while Al Jazeera said Assad’s security forces killed five people. The military is targeting three Damascus suburbs with heavy machine guns and missiles, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said today on its website.

‘We Need More’

The UN monitors are meant to calm the fighting so that talks can begin on implementing Annan’s six-point plan.

“If this Kofi Annan plan fails, if this monitoring mission fails, we’re going to be back in the UN Security Council, we’re going to be looking at Chapter 7,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

With 24 monitors in place, they are able to visit only a few sites each day, Ladsous said. “We need more from member states,” he told journalists at a briefing in New York.

Most Council ambassadors are unhappy with the time needed to get the force in place, said another Security Council diplomat. At least 362 people were killed in fighting between April 16, when the first monitors arrived, and April 27, Eric Austin, a spokesman for Amnesty International, said in a telephone interview.

‘No Protection’

“A lot of countries don’t want to send their people into a place where there is no protection for them, and to be used rather badly by the Syrian government,” William Durch, director of the Future of Peace Operations Program at the Stimson Center, a research group in Washington.

“Their mission is to guard a cease-fire and there isn’t one,” he said. “It can’t work.”

Each soldier or civilian assigned by a UN member state to a mission needs permission from his or her home country, a bureaucratic process that can take weeks, even before training begins, said Andre-Michel Essoungou, a spokesman for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Among Security Council members, only China and Russia have supplied personnel.

The monitoring mission’s commander, Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, is in Syria and due to report back to the Security Council later this month. Syria has refused to grant visas to three proposed observers despite a clear statement last month by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that Syria would not have such a veto. Syria also blocked the UN from using helicopters, and talks on a legal foundation for the mission remain incomplete, Ladsous said.

Heavy Weapons

“Any block to that freedom of movement is reason to re-evaluate the mission,” said Bill Flavin, a former U.S. special forces officer who now studies peacekeeping at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

The Syrian government and rebel groups agreed last month to a cease-fire, and Assad promised to withdraw heavy weapons and troops from populated areas. That hasn’t happened, Ladsous said yesterday.

If violence continues, “what the UN usually does is say we are going to withdraw the observers and go back to the Security Council saying the whole game is off,” Flavin said.

Even when the monitoring mission is fully staffed, the UN will still need to bring tremendous pressure on Assad, said William Nash, a retired U.S. Army major general who led U.S. peacekeepers in Bosnia in 1995-96.

“Somebody needs to talk real dirty to Assad and say there’s no evidence that we are gonna quit,” said Nash. “But to do that, Russia and China need to see that we made a good faith commitment to make it work.”