UN’s Syria Monitors May Face Pullout as Effort Stalls

Britain and France may call for ending the United Nations observer mission in Syria if the unarmed monitors continue to come under fire and can’t carry out their mandate, UN diplomats said.

The countries are waiting for Major General Robert Mood, the Norwegian officer commanding the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, to brief the Security Council this afternoon before deciding whether the mission has a future, according to two diplomats from Security Council member states who asked not to be named for reasons of diplomatic protocol.

If Mood and Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy for Syria, agree that the monitors can’t do their job, there will be no reason to keep them in place, especially if they continue to come under fire as happened several times last week, said one diplomat.

The U.S. is also questioning whether to support extending the mission’s mandate, which otherwise expires July 21, or even shut it down sooner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week. Russia has supported the operation even as it has opposed stronger Security Council action, such as international sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Mood suspended the mission’s activities June 16, saying that increasing violence made it impossible for the monitors to carry out their task of observing and trying to prevent attacks on civilians. The UN has 291 unarmed military observers and 89 civilian monitors in Syria.

A return to “normal operations” remains the mission’s objective, the general said in an e-mailed statement. The operation, established to monitor a now-ignored cease-fire, is an element in Annan’s six-point peace plan.

Practical Factors

Mood today probably will assess practical factors, a judgment that could be overridden by a political assessment by Annan that even a constrained presence helps avert worse violence and maintains channels for dialogue with the Assad regime, the diplomat said.

With forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continuing to fire tanks and artillery, and now bringing in helicopter gunships, it’s almost impossible to see a political solution emerging, said a second diplomat, raising the question of what the UN observers can accomplish.

Russia wants the observers to stay to give the Syrian regime more time to defeat its opponents, the diplomat added.

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, reported “fierce shelling” by regime forces yesterday in Homs. At least 90 people were killed in clashes around the country, the group said on its website.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on June 16 that the Security Council will be “considering its options, including the future of the UN Mission in Syria,” at today’s briefing.

U.S. Timeline

The U.S. has a timeline to see if Annan can successfully quell the violence and initiate a shift that removes Assad from power, Clinton said last week. The “outer limit” is mid-July, when the council considers extending the mandate, she said.

Without “discernible” progress, she said, “it will be very difficult to extend a mission that is increasingly dangerous for the observers on the ground.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an end to the violence in Syria after meeting yesterday at the Group of 20 summit in Mexico. They failed to agree on any specific plan to quell the fighting.

It’s already too late for the UN plan, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday in Washington. “Kofi Annan’s plan, which does not even call for Assad to go, has been a failure for months.”

No-Fly Zone

Noting the suspension of the monitoring mission, McCain said the Assad regime’s increasing reliance on helicopter gunships is giving “new impetus” to calls for a no-fly zone. “Russia is unlikely to ever support a policy of regime change in Syria,” McCain said. “The administration’s approach is being overtaken by events.”

The French and British -- and even the Americans -- may only be posturing, said Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Pulling out the monitors doesn’t change the reality that at some point countries that don’t like each other will have to talk about what happens next in Syria,” Nerguizian said. “Right now the international actors here are going through the motions: They have to articulate a rhetoric of pressure, but they can’t take off the pressure for nothing.”

The problem with burying the Annan initiative is that there is nothing to replace it with, said Marina Ottaway, senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Hillary Clinton would tell you there is a ‘Plan B’ that includes sanctions. But sanctions, as far as I know, have never brought down any regime all by themselves.”

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