UN observer mission in Syria ended amidst ongoing violence

Aug 30 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament
David Cliff, London
Aside from the mounting casualty figures and daily reports of violence in the streets of Aleppo and Damascus and elsewhere, media coverage of the ongoing Syrian conflict has directed a lot of attention in recent weeks to the potential use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against his own people—and to what kind of response that might provoke from the West. A quieter development has been the decision to end the United Nations observer mission in the country, set up in April as part of a six-point peace plan brokered by the ex-UN Secretary-General and soon-to-be-ex-envoy of the UN and Arab League to Syria, Kofi Annan.
Nearly a year and a half after the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria in March 2011, the security situation in the country today is worse than ever. What’s more, the flames of the fighting between the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels of the ‘Free Syrian Army’, the main opposition movement, and those remaining loyal to the Syrian president—most of whom, like Assad, belong to the Alawite sect of Shia Islam—seem now to be sparking sectarian clashes in the neighbouring tinderbox of Lebanon.
Back in April, however, there was some cautious optimism that the rising tide of violence between Syrian rebels and government forces would abate if the UN-supervised cessation of hostilities called for in Mr Annan’s plan—as annexed to UN Security Council Resolution 2042 of 14 April 2012—took hold. Resolution 2042 authorised the deployment of ‘an advance team of up to 30 unarmed military observers’, who were to liaise with the parties to the conflict and who would ‘begin to report on the implementation of a full cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties’, pending the deployment of a larger UN mission in Syria.
That mission, known as the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was established a week later—on 21 April 2012—as part of UN Security Council Resolution 2043. It was to be made up of 300 unarmed military observers, ‘as well as an appropriate civilian component’, and was to be deployed to Syria for an initial period of 90 days.
Resolution 2043 gave UNSMIS broad-ranging rights of movement and other freedoms within Syria. The Syrian government was called upon to facilitate the ‘expeditious and unhindered deployment’ of UNSMIS personnel, as well as to ensure its ‘full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access as necessary to fulfil its mandate’ and to allow ‘unobstructed communications’ by observers. Additionally, the regime was called upon to allow UN personnel ‘to freely and privately communicate with individuals throughout Syria without retaliation against any person as a result of interaction with UNSMIS.’
Far from overseeing a mutual ceasefire, however, after an initial lull in hostilities following the arrival of UNSMIS, fighting by both sides picked up once again and the observer mission in Syria soon found itself bearing witness to the appalling aftermath of mass killings by Syrian government forces and state-supported paramilitaries.
In late May, most prominently of all perhaps, UN observers counted 108 bodies—including 34 women and 49 children—after a massacre near the town of Houla in Syria’s western Homs province. Most of the dead, UN observers reported, appeared to have been deliberately executed at close range. Amid the scores of atrocities to scar the Syrian conflict, the Houla massacre stood out as Syria’s ‘hallmark bloodbath—its before-and-after moment,’ Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker remarked, just as there was Mai Lai in Vietnam, Srebrenica in Bosnia and Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. ‘In this gruesome reality show that we all now inhabit,’ Anderson wrote of Houla, ‘the UN men arrived afterwards, in time to film the bodies left behind by their killers, with the merit of at least having confirmed that an atrocity took place.’ But not able to do more than that.
On 7 June, two weeks after the Houla killings and one day after violence in the town of Mazraat al-Qubair in Hama province left nearly 80 people dead, Mr Annan declared that unless the situation in Syria was to change, the future looked ‘likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence, and even all-out civil war.’ More precisely, one might have argued, the future looked likely to be one of continuing repression, massacres and violence—and not a slide to civil war but rather the increasingly unavoidable recognition that civil war was precisely the state to which Syria had by then already deteriorated.
A subsequent report by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) released in mid-August accused Syrian government forces and the thuggish pro-Assad militia known as the Shabiha of committing ‘the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture’ as well as perpetrating ‘war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property.’ (The report, which presented the latest findings of the HRC’s independent international commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Syria, noted that UN investigations had found government forces and members of the Shabiha to be responsible for the Houla killings, as widely suspected.)
On 16 June, escalating hostilities saw the UN suspend the operations of UNSMIS to protect its personnel. Its mandate was, nonetheless, extended on 20 July 2012 for a 30-day period on the authorisation of the UN Security Council. By then, though, as the UN Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous told the press on 25 July, the mission was working on the basis of a ‘reduced format’ with around half of its military observers already having been sent back to their own countries. On 16 August, three days before the mandate extension was due to elapse, the Security Council pulled the plug on the mission entirely, with just a small UN office in Damascus to be left behind.
Mr Annan, for his part, announced his resignation as the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria in early August, citing the ‘continuing refusal’ of the Syrian government to implement the six-point plan and the ‘escalating military campaign of the opposition’—all of which was being ‘compounded by the disunity of the international community,’ he added, in a reference to divisions over Syria among the P5 members of the UN Security Council. Mr Annan’s resignation is due to take effect from the end of this month, with Lakhdar Brahimi, a former UN special envoy to both Iraq and Afghanistan (among other global trouble-spots), set to take over from September onwards.
Mr Brahimi, as experienced and capable as he undoubtedly is, faces an enormous challenge in trying to bring peace to Syria, in a conflict that seems to be worsening and becoming ever more savage by the day. Meanwhile, with the country largely a no-go area for foreign media personnel, the (understandable) withdrawal of the UN supervision mission further complicates both efforts to understand the complexities of the evolving situation and attempts to gain independent verification of reports by opposition activists of atrocities and other developments. Some journalists do remain, and some (including Anderson, a veteran reporter of conflicts around the world) sneak in and out as and when they can to provide independent accounts of the fighting and the bloodshed. It can only be hoped that mediation efforts—by the United Nations and, perhaps, by other outside powers—are able to quieten the violence in a way that hasn’t proved possible so far, before it gets much worse, and to enough of an extent that any future re-engaged presence by a UN supervision mission will actually have some measure of peace to supervise.



Last changed: Mar 12 2013 at 6:48 PM