Turtle Bay

Big powers rumble while Syria cease-fire strains

Russia clashed today with the United States and its European and Arab allies over a plan to send U.N. monitors to Syria to enforce a shaky cease-fire accord. Despite broad agreement over the need to swiftly deploy U.N. blue berets in Syria, the two sides are split over the U.N. mission’s mandate. The main sticking ...

Russia clashed today with the United States and its European and Arab allies over a plan to send U.N. monitors to Syria to enforce a shaky cease-fire accord.

Despite broad agreement over the need to swiftly deploy U.N. blue berets in Syria, the two sides are split over the U.N. mission’s mandate. The main sticking point revolves around a dispute over whether the U.N. monitors should be empowered with sweeping authority to go anywhere and interview anyone they chose.

The United States has circulated a draft resolution that condemns Syria’s military crackdown on opposition targets, grants U.N. monitors extensive freedom to poke around the country, and strengthens demands on Syria to withdraw its forces and heavy weapons to the barracks.

Russia, meanwhile, favors a simple resolution that would immediately authorize the deployment of the advance team, but would require the U.N. to negotiate the terms of their mandate with Syrian government. Those terms could be set out in a future resolution establishing a full-fledged U.N. monitoring mission for Syria.

"We think there may have been a misunderstanding because yesterday, when we discussed that the Security Council needs to give a green light to a monitoring mission, the idea … was that it should be a very brief resolution to set the process in motion," Russia’s U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin said earlier today. "My preference is … to set boots on ground in Syria and then prepare both the resolution and the technical capability of the Secretariat…"

Western diplomats said that it was necessary to spell out the monitors’ rights in advance to avoid their falling into the same trap that a team of Arab League monitors fell into earlier this year. Syria blocked the Arab monitors from bringing in their own secure communications equipment and restricted their freedom of movement.

"This mission, the advance mission, and the main observer mission have to be set on the right course, so we have to spell out the conditions," said Germany’s U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig. "A U.N. observer mission should never be a pawn in technical games, that’s why it’s important to set out the conditions and this is what we are working on today."

The Security Council negotiations played out as the shaky cease-fire completed its second day, with scattered exchanges of violence, and tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets in a reenergized challenge to President Bashar al-Assad‘s rule.

Kofi Annan appealed to the Security Council on Wednesday to move swiftly to authorize an advance mission of U.N. monitors, primarily recruited from other U.N. missions in the region. Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said that the cease-fire was being "relatively respected" and that an advance team of 12 monitors are awaiting council approval to head off to Syria at a moment’s notice.

"The team is on standby to board the plane and to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible," Fawzi told reporters in Geneva, according to the Associated Press. "We hope both sides will sustain this calm, this relative calm."

But the council was unable to give the green light on Friday night. After a lengthy negotiation, France’s and Germany’s U.N. envoys emerged from the council to announce plans to vote on a Western-backed draft resolution at 11:00 am on Saturday. Russia’s U.N. envoy Churkin said that while the council had "some good discussions" but that he "was not completely satisfied with the outcome."

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, said the talks had been "serious" and that "everyone was trying to roll up their sleeves and deal with this responsibly." But she declined to say whether a deal was possible. "I don’t want to predict. We’ve been to this movie too many times."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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