The United Nations Security Council won’t renew its unarmed observer mission in Syria, conceding it was unable to stem the violence as concerns grew that the country’s conflict was spilling across borders.
The council decided yesterday in New York to let the mandate for the observer team expire, with operations scheduled to “fade out” beginning Aug. 19, French Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud said. The mission has numbered about 300 unarmed military observers.
The council endorsed a plan by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to open a small political liaison office in Damascus to prepare for a Syria without Bashar al-Assad as president.
The decision marked the latest setback in efforts by the UN to broker a cease-fire and open talks between Assad’s government and rebels. A diplomatic impasse continued between the U.S. and France, which support the opposition and want Assad to step down, and Russia and China, which have vetoed UN resolutions to increase sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Syria.
Exception, Not Rule
“The UN succeeds at managing crises the strongest powers don’t care much about; it fails at managing crises when the major powers have interests,” said Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in California and an associate professor of international security studies at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. “Cooperation on international crises is the exception, not the rule.”
More than a million people have been uprooted since fighting began 17 months ago and another million have “urgent humanitarian needs due to the widening impact of the crisis on the economy and people’s livelihoods,” UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos told journalists in Damascus yesterday.
The prospect of the conflict spilling into neighboring countries intensified yesterday as citizens of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the U.A.E. and Qatar were warned to leave Lebanon amid kidnapping threats. The warnings came after the abduction of a Lebanese man in Syria who is part of the Meqdad clan, an extended family that belongs mostly to Lebanon’s Muslim Shiite community.
The clan kidnapped 20 Syrians and a Turkish national in Lebanon in retaliation for the abduction, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation reported, citing an unnamed family spokesman who threatened to capture Saudis and Qataris. Maher Meqdad, a clan spokesman, said yesterday that his family had halted kidnappings and has no links to the recent abductions, the Daily Star said.
A second Turkish national was kidnapped last night in Chweifat, outside Beirut, the official National News Agency said. It identified him as Orssolane Basset Abd and said he was driving a Mercedes truck when the abduction took place. It said Lebanese businessman Raja Zoheiry was also seized and his kidnappers have demanded $1 million ransom to release him. The Lebanese Cabinet set up a crisis cell yesterday to resolve the kidnap issue, the agency said.
Turkey and Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed the opposition against Assad’s government, where fighting has taken on an increasingly sectarian character. Many rebels are Sunni Muslims, while the government is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
As of Aug. 13, 23,002 people have been killed in Syria, including 16,142 civilians and 5,842 soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mail yesterday. Fighting today left 140 people dead after at least 238 were killed yesterday, according to the activist Local Coordination Committees.
The Security Council action reflects the limitation on movements by observers amid the violence in Syria and the failure of the mediation efforts of Kofi Annan, who resigned on Aug. 2 as joint special envoy for the UN and Arab League. Former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi was named as Annan’s replacement today, the UN said in a statement.
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, faulted countries that he said “did not really show a commitment to ending hostilities,” a reference to the U.S., France and Britain, which supported halting the UN mission.
Churkin said the nations in the Syria Action Group, originally formed to support Annan’s mediation efforts, will continue to press for implementation of Annan’s six-point plan. The group includes the Russia, China, the U.S., the U.K. and France, which are the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Turkey, the European Union and Arab states.
The new UN office will have 20 to 30 people and will include political, military, humanitarian and human-rights advisers, as well as a de-mining unit, said Edmond Mulet, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping.
The challenge now facing diplomats is how to end the fighting quickly.
“It won’t burn itself out,” said Schake, who served as a senior policy adviser to Republican U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona during his 2008 run for the presidency. “It’ll consume the tinder in surrounding countries and set the whole region aflame.”