- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
Some were too old, too ill for their task. Others quarreled over reimbursements for hotel accommodations or refused orders to carry out their mission.
Simply put, many of the 166 Arab observers parachuted into Syria on Dec. 24 to document the widening violence were utterly incapable of enduring the rigors of life in a country roiled by social upheaval and conflict, according to an internal account of their work.
"Regrettably, some observers thought that their visit to Syria was for pleasure," wrote Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi, the chief of the Arab League monitoring mission. "In some instances, experts who were nominated were not qualified for the job, did not have prior experience, and were not able to shoulder the responsibility."
On Jan. 18, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby ordered the suspension of the organization’s observer mission, its first major experiment in human rights monitoring. He claimed that the escalation of violence had undercut its ability to do its job.
But a confidential account of the organization’s mission, signed by the monitor’s controversial chief and obtained by Turtle Bay, shows that the Arab monitors were hobbled from the beginning by a shortage of equipment — and by what Al-Dabi describes as a ferocious Syrian media disinformation campaign against the monitors and him personally. "The credibility of the mission has been undermined in the minds of Arab and foreign viewers," he wrote.
Still, the findings have become the focus of a diplomatic feud between Russia and the Security Council’s main European powers — which are set to debate taking more forceful position on Syria today. On Monday, Jan. 30, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, insisted that the Security Council receive a briefing on the report’s conclusions. The Europeans, meanwhile have dismissed the report out of hand, saying the Arab League’s mission was effectively a failure, and their report has nothing to offer the council to chart its diplomatic course.
Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s U.N. ambassador, said Friday that the work of the monitoring group has been "overtaken" by the Arab League’s diplomatic efforts to secure Security Council support for a political transition in Syria.
At issue is a single finding in the 18-page report that recommends that Arab governments not relinquish their mediating role to the international community, a likely reference to the Security Council. European diplomats say the mission had no mandate to make such an assertion, while Russian officials say it would be irresponsible to deny the Security Council the right to review the Arab League’s full account of what happened on the ground.
"The mission…sensed the acute stress, injustice and oppression endured [by] Syrian citizens," Al-Dabi wrote. "Yet they are convinced that the Syrian crisis must be resolved peacefully, in the Arab context, and not internationalized so that they can live in peace securely, and achieve the desired reforms and changes." That said, he is surprisingly candid and critical of the observer mission’s ability to perform well the task required of them.
He recommends that the mission be reinforced with an additional 100 observers ("preferable young with military background"), 30 armored vehicles, protective vests, vehicle mounted cameras, and night vision binoculars. "Despite all of the above, the performance of many observers was excellent and deserves to be commended and appreciated," Al-Dabi writes. "It should be stressed performance shortcomings will be addressed and remedied with further practice and guidance, God Willing."
But the Arab League mission faced trouble almost immediately after the monitors arrived in Syria last month.
Syrian officials at the Jordanian border confiscated their communications gear, leaving them with only ten Al Thurayya satellite phones, and forcing them to rely on unsecure Syrian fax and phone lines. The Chinese embassy had to intervene to give them ten walkie-talkies to address a breakdown in the monitors’ capacity to communicate with each other and headquarters. The observers, who were stationed in 15 areas of the country, also lacked sufficient bullet-proof vests or armored personnel carriers. Local rental car agencies refused to rent them cars after early missions led observers into the middle of riots.
"The government put in place a tight strategy to limit access to the core areas, and keeping the mission occupied with issues of concern to the government," reads the report. "The mission resisted this approach, and reacted in a manner that guaranteed the fulfillment of its tasks as envisaged."
In the mission’s early days, thousands of pro-government supporters surrounded the mission’s convoy in the town of Latakya, "chanting slogans in support of the president and against the mission," reads the report. "The crowds went out of control, and the observers were attacked. Two observers sustained minor injuries. Their armored vehicle was totally destroyed."
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem submitted a formal apology for what the report characterized as "these regrettable non-deliberate acts" and the monitors continued their work. But they quickly encountered a new problem. The monitoring mission, says Al-Dabi, did not have a mandate for addressing the widening scope of the armed opposition to the regime. In Homs and Daraa, armed opposition groups used "thermal bombs and anti-armor missiles" against government forces. "The mission was witness to acts of violence against government forces and citizens leading to death and injury of many. A case in point was the attack against a civilian bus which killed eight persons and injured others, including women and children."
The mission’s international standing was also diminished by the selection of its monitoring chief — General Al-Dabi, a close advisor of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Al-Dabi also served as a top military officer in Darfur, Sudan, at a time when the government was organizing local militia, known as the Janjaweed, that were involved in mass killings of civilians in the region. An Algerian member of the Arab team, Anwar Malek, resigned in protest, telling Al Jazeera that the mission was a "farce."
"What I saw was a humanitarian disaster. The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people," said Malek. "The snipers are everywhere shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and none were released."
Al-Dabi has not commented on Malek’s claim. But the report notes that "some observers failed to honor their commitments and the provision of the oath they took. They contacted officials in their countries…and painted a very gloomy picture. This resulted in misunderstanding and faulty assessment by those officials of the situation."
European diplomats, meanwhile, have questioned Al-Dabi’s accounts of events unfolding in Syria, including the observer mission’s report on the killing of a French television journalist. Al-Dabi writes simply that the "reports of the mission already indicate that the French journalist died, and a Belgian reporter injured, as a result of mortar attacks fired by the opposition." But one European official said the report fails to mention testimony by other journalists traveling in the area that the reporter had been forced into the line of fire by pro-government supporters. "The account we received is that they were exposed to enemy fire deliberately," said one European diplomat.
As for the monitors, the official said it was clear they were being used and manipulated by the Syrian government to gain time to crush anti-government protesters and armed opposition elements.
Al-Dabi disagreed, arguing that despite its shortcomings the monitoring mission was vital to the country’s stability.
"Any termination of the work of the mission after this short term will undermine the positive results — even if incomplete — that have been achieved so far. This may result in complete chaos on the ground given that [the] parties are neither qualified nor ready for the political process which aims at resolving the Syrian crisis."
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