- 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.
Speaking to the press outside the U.N. Security Council in New York on Tuesday, Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observer mission in Syria, and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, put on a brave face, assuring the Syrian people that the United Nations would not abandon them in their hour of need.
Despite Mood’s decision on Saturday to halt the mission’s 300 unarmed monitors from patrolling Syria’s trouble spots, the Norwegian officer said the mission would stay put and might even resume patrols if the violence calmed down. "We are not going away," Mood said. But "we need to see a change if the activities of the mission, the current configuration under the current mandate, are to be meaningful."
But behind closed doors, Ladsous made it clear to the council that the U.N. monitoring mission, as it is currently configured, had outlived its usefulness and that it would be pointless to renew its mandate, or to simply reinforce it with additional monitors, when its mandate expires on July 21, according to council members present at the meeting.
The problem, Ladsous explained, is that a recent up-tick in violence in Syria had simply obliterated the cease-fire the monitors were there to enforce, and there was no sign that the Syrian government or the armed opposition had any intention to enter into political talks aimed at establishing a new government.
Despite the setback, Ladsous said that the U.N. had no other choice but to explore other options for rescuing Kofi Annan‘s troubled six-point peace plan for Syria, saying "there is no other plan; there is no other game in town."
Ladsous gave the Security Council a range of options to select from, everything from the total withdrawal of the mission from Syria to creation of a new observer mission, secured by an armed protection force of at least 300 blue helmets. "We have to think ahead and think about various options," he told reporters after the session.
Behind closed doors, Ladsous said the first option was undesirable while any plan to deploy armed troops in Syria might be politically impossible, encountering resistance from the Syrian government, whose consent would be required, and from the countries supplying troops to the mission.
That left a third option, which appears to have the most support within U.N. circles: The U.N. would establish a small political liaison office, supported by an enlarged civilian component, including human rights monitors, political officers, and other U.N. experts. The thrust of their mission would be prodding the two sides into entering political talks and implementing confidence-building measures. They might leave a few military observers in the mission to form the core of a future monitoring mission in the event that a political settlement emerges.
The new thinking follows one of the most dangerous weeks for the monitoring mission. Last week, U.N. monitors were been targeted at least 10 times by close fire or hostile crowds, and the sites that the monitor teams visited faced indirect fire almost daily. Two U.N. vehicles were attacked last week by an angry mob hurling stones and wielding metal rods outside the town of Haffa.
Unknown shooters sprayed multiple rounds of bullets into the vehicles as they left the site, a U.N. spokesman Kieran Dwyer told Turtle Bay last week. Mood, meanwhile, told the council that seven other U.N. vehicles were damaged over the past week. "I halted the operations of UNSMIS because of the violence and because it is difficult to implement the mandated task under these circumstances," he told reporters.
Dwyer said the U.N. monitoring mission may be prepared to undertake specific missions in the event they have agreement from the warring parties. For instance, the U.N. monitors are "ready" to "monitor the evacuation of civilians" from the town of Homs, where civilians have been trapped for more than week in the middle of battle, but only if the Syrian government and the armed opposition agree to let them. The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, sought to carry out the evacuations of civilians and the wounded in Homs under an agreement with the warring parties, according to Reuters. But they had to retreat after hearing nearby gunfire. They could not identify the source of the fire.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch