UN Just Getting Started in Syria— Give Observer Mission a Chance

The media has already declared the UN observer mission in Syria a failure. It hasn't stopped the violence and cannot protect protesters. Of course it hasn't been effective yet, writes Daniel Serwer. It hasn't really arrived. It will likely take the still-growing mission weeks, at best, to quell the violence. The Annan plan may still fail, it hasn't failed yet.

al-monitor United Nations (UN) observers travel in UN vehicles from the UN office in Damascus to Douma, where protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been taking place, April 26, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.
Daniel Serwer

Daniel Serwer


Topics covered


Feb 8, 2013

The New York Times, NPR and other major media outlets have already declared the 300-strong UN observer mission in Syria, approved last weekend in the Security Council, a failure. The UN hasn't stopped the violence, or even induced the Syrian government to withdraw heavy weapons from population centers. The observers are unable to protect protesters or ensure that humanitarian relief reaches civilians, as required by Kofi Annan's six-point plan.

All that is true, but premature: As of yesterday, there were only 11 UN observers deployed in Syria. The remaining dozen or so are headquarters and support personnel. Part of the initial contingent came from the UN mission in Lebanon, but the Secretary General will not want to denude that effort to staff Syria. It will take time to get UN member states to cough up more troops for what is obviously a dangerous effort.

The press reports that violence typically subsides when the observers are present but surges once they leave. To journalists, this is a sign of their ineffectiveness. To diplomats, it means that they may be able to tamp down the violence, provided they are deployed in sufficient numbers.

If the 12 already deployed work in groups of at least three, they can be present in only four places on any given day, provided they have adequate transport, which is not ensured. Of course they haven't been effective yet. They haven't really arrived. The remaining several hundred will take weeks, maybe even months, to deploy.

Even then, experience suggests that it will take time before violence subsides. The UN operates only with the consent of warring parties, in this case the Syrian government and a fractious array of protesters. Consent is nominal on both sides. The government, feeling threatened, wants to suppress its opponents before withdrawing its forces from population centers. Some of the protesters continue violent attacks on Syrian security forces, providing the government with a convenient excuse for its continued use of force.

It will likely take weeks at best, more likely months, to reverse this spiral of violence. Only diligent and impartial reporting by the observers, combined with pressure from Kofi Annan and key Security Council members, can turn it around. The Americans, British and French need to focus on ending protester violence, in particular by the Free Syria Army. Its command and control is not unified, and many of its adherents are not former soldiers but local neighborhood-watch volunteers. Picture George Zimmerman with an AK-47. It is going to be difficult to get them to implement a ceasefire. The Russians and Chinese need to focus on Bashar al-Assad, whom they have so far been protecting. They need to convince him that his only chance for survival is an end to the brutal crackdown.

Once the situation begins to calm, at least in some places, humanitarian relief has to begin flowing and journalists must be allowed in, in accordance with Kofi Annan's plan. Even Assad may allow these moves. International relief efforts will lighten his financial burdens and foreign journalists may be more objective than the protester-sympathetic "stringers" who provide most of the on-the-ground coverage at present.

Only then will it be possible to begin the political dialogue Kofi Annan is to facilitate. 

While the Security Council has not called explicitly for Assad's removal, it has called for “a Syrian-led political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system, ... including through commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.” The implication is that Assad is to be eased out, more like Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen than Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. The Americans, British and French will press hard for a democratic transition. Russia will resist, even if it signed on to the Security Council call.

One key factor in the political equation will be Iran. Syria, which is running out of money, depends heavily on Iran for financial, military and political support. Tehran won't want to lose Assad, but if it looks as if he is about to go they will want to shift gears and try to put someone else in place who will continue the many decades of Syria's alliance with Iran. Continued chaos, which is already flowing over Syria's borders to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, may be worse from Tehran's perspective than a new man at the helm in Damascus.

Of course, we may never get to that point. 

The UN observers and the other elements of the Annan plan may still fail.  But they haven't failed yet, no matter what the press says.

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at www.peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.

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