Earlier this year, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League mediator for Syria, determined that more than 3,000 heavily-armed U.N. blue helmets would be required in Syria to enforce a peace deal he was hoping to broker between President Bashar al-Assad's government and an assortment of anti-government armed forces and opposition politicians.
The U.N. force, in Brahimi's view, could place some military muscle behind his plan to end the country's civil war by creating a national unity government to oversee the country's democratic transition. So far, the U.N. trouble-shooter's mediation efforts has stalled in the face of diplomatic deadlock between the United States and Russia and escalating fighting by warring parties in Syria.
In recent weeks, Brahimi has achieved some progress, bringing Russian and American diplomats together for talks that raised hopes that superpower pressure on the warring parties to silence their guns could lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. Brahimi is currently weighing plans to travel to the region, including a possible visit to Damascus, to continue pressing for an agreement on a national unity government, setting the stage for the deployment of such force.
"Syria needs a peaceful, political solution that brings democratic change, while preserving the fabric of Syrian society and the peaceful coexistence of its communities," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters at U.N. headquarters yesterday, during his year-end press conference. But he voiced growing gloom about the prospects for a peaceful outcome to the crisis, saying "we do not see any prospect of any end of violence or any prospect of political dialogue to start."
Internally, U.N. officials are growing increasingly skeptical about the chances for a negotiated settlement or the wisdom of sending a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Syria to restore stability. They argue that a much larger multinational force, preferably led by European governments, would stand a better chance of filling the security vacuum in Syria..But one U.N.-based official conceded there "seems to be no appetite [in European capitals] to deploy boots on the ground.".
The new thinking comes as armed opposition forces have seemed to turn the tide in the military conflict, capturing key military installations near Damascus, threatening Syrian aircraft with newly acquired shoulder-to-air rockets, and throwing into question the very survival of the Assad government.
On Tuesday, Russia sent two warships to its Mediterranean port of Tartus in Syria to ready for a possible evacuation of Russian nationals in the event Assad is overthrown, Reuters reported, citing Russia's Interfax News Agency.
While the United States and other Western powers have long favored Assad's fall from power, there is mounting concern that his violent overthrow or abdication could trigger the dissolution of the Syrian state, including the Syrian Army, generating the kind of sectarian violence and chaos that marked the messy aftermath of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's overthrow by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003.
Only a week ago, some U.N. diplomats were confident that President Assad's military setbacks would force him to begin serious negotiations on a power-sharing arrangement, increasing the prospects for a political breakthrough, according to sources. But the pace of the rebels' battlefield achievements have quickened, lessening the likelihood that they would agree to anything but total military victory.
U.N.-based diplomats worry that an abrupt collapse of his regime would unleash a destructive wave in violence, transforming regime forces into an armed insurgents, triggering reprisal killings against the country's ruling Alawites, and fueling political and sectarian strike throughout the region.
"Everybody is aware that all tides are moving against Assad; that the tide is rolling in on him," said one Security Council diplomat. "The question is when and how."
It's the how that worries Brahimi.
The central pillar of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy -- the Geneva Action plan, which enjoys the support of the United States, Russia, and other key powers -- called for a phased transition, led by a unity government made up of regime and opposition leaders, and secured by a mutually agreed ceasefire. Under the plan, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would be deployed to monitor the transition, which would culminate in Assad's formal departure sometime in 2014, and to deter potential attacks against the country's minorities, principally revenge attacks against the ruling Alawites.
"It looks like the military balance on the ground appears to be really shifting in favor of the opposition, and that we are moving toward a military victory by one side," said a senior U.N.-based source familiar with the planning. "But there will be no ceasefire, and no end to violence, which is a much worse scenario."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said that military developments are torpedoing Brahimi's carefully laid plans.
"I think it's now fairly clear that the Geneva [Action Plan] is dead," Gowan said. "And if Brahimi is going to have any credibility he is going to have show flexibility and respond to a potential collapse of the Assad regime. That is going to mean putting aside a lot of the conditions the Russians and Chinese are still clinging to and working with those who have the power on the ground. That's the ugly reality facing Brahimi."
U.N. officials are now beginning to incorporate this worst-case scenario into their planning. Until recently, U.N. peacekeeping officials had been developing contingency plans for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission with a mandate to implement a peace agreement between the warring factions.
The U.N. blue-helmet force was to be deployed in Damascus and in key cities along the Mediterranean coast, stretching as far north as the town of Latakia. They would secure a major supply route from the sea to Damascus, and deter attacks against vulnerable civilians. In contrast to previous U.N. and Arab monitoring missions, the United Nations would insist this time on access to high-tech intelligence, communications, and air and ground transport.
The U.N. has informally reached out to European governments to see whether they would be willing to commit peacekeepers to such a force, or to permit the U.N. to move European blue helmets currently stationed in southern Lebanon -- where they are monitoring the border with Israel -- to Syria.
But the U.N. has ruled out a role for the United States or key regional powers, including Turkey, with interest in Syria. The U.N. doesn't believe "it would be politically wise to have the Americans in the lead in that region," said the senior U.N.-based source. "And [the U.N.] doesn't believe it should be led by the immediate neighbors. That leaves the European Union, plus NATO, minus the Americans."
Gowan said that there may ultimately be a role for key European and regional powers, including France, Turkey, and Russia, to participate in a multinational force in Syria.
But he said that the United Nations -- which already has several thousand European peacekeepers deployed nearby in southern Lebanon -- may have to move in quickly to avert a bloodbath against the Alawites.
"The U.N.'s deployment plan could actually provide a basis for protecting the minorities," said Gowan, noting that the countries' largest concentration of Syrian Alawites resides near the coast. "But if you have a scenario with a high level of instability and you need to use pretty serious force to restore order, the United Nations cannot do that. You would need a multinational force, backed by NATO, and indirectly backed by the United States."
In New York, U.N.-based diplomats and officials worry there may be no political will in Washington and European capitals for an international intervention force, and that the job will be left to an ill-equipped force of U.N. blue helmets. "Can U.N. peacekeeping deal with this situation?" asked one official. "We all have doubts."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.