As Kofi Annan pursues a cease-fire to end the violence in Syria, the U.N.'s peacekeeping department has been developing plans for a mission of about 250 unarmed, international observers to monitor the peace and hopefully to buy some time for political talks to forge a lasting settlement.
But what can U.N. monitors achieve in a country like Syria, where a recent experiment involving roughly 150 poorly equipped, ill-trained Arab League monitors ended in failure? Observers say there are few precedents for the deployment of U.N. observers in the middle of an internal conflict, particularly one like Syria where the armed opposition does not operate under a single chain of command.
The experience of the Arab League monitors, who withdrew in January, provides some clues as to the challenges. In the initial stages of that observation mission, Syria erected a series of bureaucratic hurdles, preventing the outside observers from importing their own communications equipment and limiting their travel within the country.
Even if U.N. observers are able to overcome these hurdles, how would a small group of unarmed foreign observers ensure their independence from government security forces and its own protection from spoilers, including a resurgent al Qaeda?
The British government has begun exploring a series of ideas with the U.N. peacekeeping department about the shape of the new mission, which would likely draw staff from existing U.N. missions in the Middle East, including the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, the U.N. Truce Supervision Force, and the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
A small team of U.N. peacekeeping planners are headed to Damascus in the coming days to begin preliminary discussions with the government, although a date has not been set.
U.N. officials and outside observers say they expect a long protracted negotiation with the Syrian government over the mission's terms. Both Annan, a former U.N. peacekeeping chief, and one of his principle deputies, Jean-Marie Guehenno, who succeeded Annan as the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, know better than most the perils of deploying U.N. missions that lack resources or a firm enough mandate to succeed.
In Geneva, Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, meanwhile, expressed concern that there has been no halt to the fighting in Syria, and called on Assad to take the first step. "We expect him to implement this plan immediately," Fawzi told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "Clearly, we have not seen a cessation of hostilities and this is of great concern."
"The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side," Fawzi added. "We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith.... The deadline is now."
Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, said that there will be an "unstoppable pressure" from key powers to deploy foreign monitors in order to show that the world is responding to the violence.
"It will be really tempting to get some observers into the country and say this is a sign of progress. I would urge caution because you could be setting yourself up for another failure," Gowan said. "The Syrians are well placed to manipulate the monitors as they come in."
The U.N. has a long history of deploying observer missions, but they have traditionally been used to monitor cease-fire agreements, or border disputes between states, not internal conflicts. However, there are some precedents.
In 1998, Richard Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton's chief Balkans envoy, negotiated an agreement with the Serbs to deploy the Kosovo Verification Mission in Kosovo, a team of 1,400 observers that enjoyed considerable freedom to monitor violence in the former Serb territory. But the mission, which was established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was unable to stem the violence, and was withdrawn the following year when NATO decided to bomb Serbia into compliance. In 2007, the U.N. sent about 180 unarmed U.N. monitors to Nepal, to ensure that Maoist insurgents remained in a set of military cantonments through the country's election. And last year, the U.N. planned to send a couple of hundred monitors to Libya, to support efforts to broker a cease-fire between the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi and the insurgents. The plan was ditched after Qaddafi's government collapsed last fall.
Annan is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on Monday, April 2, by video conference from Geneva on the latest diplomatic development on Syria, and may broach discussions of a monitoring mission. Security Council members say that a new monitoring mission will require the adoption of a new Security Council resolution, but that no one is expected to table one until receiving a request from Annan.
In the meantime, council diplomats have been putting a series of questions on the mandate of a new mission before Annan and the U.N. peacekeeping department. Most importantly, European officials are seeking assurance that U.N. monitors are used to bolster a political transition, not simply to enforce a stand off that favors the Syrian government.
Gowan offers his own recommendations. For a new monitoring mission in Syria to be a success, six basic operational criteria must be fulfilled:
1. Freedom of movement: The Arab League observer mission was under constant supervision by Syrian security personnel, and could not travel to trouble-spots without their minders. To have even minimal credibility, the U.N. mission would need to be able to make monitoring visits on their own initiative. The team would need their own vehicles (probably armored 4x4s) and independent close-protection officers. The Syrian authorities will argue that the observers should notify them in advance of trips for safety's sake. Nonetheless, the U.N, should insist on the right on to make spot-checks with 2-3 hours notice at most.
2. A secure HQ and communications: The Arab observers were headquartered in a hotel, and had use Syrian communications systems to contact the Arab League in Cairo, inevitably compromising their reporting. A credible U.N. mission would need an independent base -- off-limits to Syrian authorities -- and the ability to send encrypted communications to New York. A neutral government such as Switzerland could provide military communications experts to support the mission. It might not take long for the Syrians (with Russian and Iranian help) to crack the codes, but this would at least signal the observers' autonomy.
3. Access to Syrian artillery and armor: The use of big guns and tanks against civilians has been a defining dimension of the conflict. While the Arab observers were meant to oversee the removal of heavy weapons from urban areas, the Syrian Army only made cosmetic withdrawals. Annan and the Security Council have now called for the "end the use of heavy weapons in population centers, and [to] begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers." U.N. monitors would need to prioritize tracking artillery and armored units, possibly even embedding personnel in their bases away from cities.
4. Satellites and drones: Heavy weapons can also be tracked by drones and satellites -- which the United States has done already -- and the observer mission should make use of these sources. Damascus will object to the U.N. turning to the United States for aerial or satellite intelligence, but the U.N. can get imagery from other sources and has its own satellite imagery analysts. The EU also has a satellite center that could be put at the U.N.'s disposal, and Belgium has a small fleet of drones that it has previously deployed in European peace operations.
5. Special investigators: While "observing" and "monitoring" sound like passive activities, the U.N. could also deploy investigative teams to gain more detailed information on specific incidents -- including bombings and raids by rebel forces. While it's very hard to gather reliable evidence in war zones, small teams of forensic and ballistics specialists may be able to piece together basic facts on new massacres. Although not much of a deterrent in the short term, the presence of these teams may make it possible to hold killers from both sides accountable later, as drawn-out prosecutions in the Balkans have shown.
6. An emergency exit strategy: However effectively the U.N. monitors might perform, there will still be a risk that the situation in Syria will deteriorate again -- and either the government or opposition could try to seize some observers as hostages. There will need to be a military plan to get the monitors out at short notice. Russia, with its base at Tartus, is best-placed to arrange such a plan and could offer to do so as a sign of goodwill towards Kofi Annan. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon and the Turkish armed forces -- and possibly Britain, which has forces stationed nearby in Cyprus -- could lend a helping hand.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.