Turtle Bay

Can the U.N.’s new Syria monitors keep the peace?

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously today to send up to 30 U.N. blue berets to Syria as the spearhead of a U.N. monitoring mission charged with reinforcing a shaky two-day-long cease-fire between the Syrian government and armed insurgents. Today’s vote places the United Nations at the center of one of the most volatile crises ...

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously today to send up to 30 U.N. blue berets to Syria as the spearhead of a U.N. monitoring mission charged with reinforcing a shaky two-day-long cease-fire between the Syrian government and armed insurgents.

Today’s vote places the United Nations at the center of one of the most volatile crises of the Arab Spring and offers the outside world independent eyewitness to the brutality that has unfolded during a 13-month crackdown on anti-government protesters that has left more than 9,000 dead and pitched the country into civil war.

Following the U.N. vote, U.S. and European diplomats welcomed the decision to deploy U.N. monitors in Syria, but said that they remained skeptical about Damascus’s willingness to end its violent repression of anti-government targets.

"We are under no illusion — two days of diminished violence after a year of murderous rampage hardly proves that the regime is serious about honoring its commitments," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "Just today serious forces resumed their brutal shelling of Homs and shot innocent mourners in Allepo."

Syria’s U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, told the council that his government will "spare no effort to guarantee the success" of Special Envoy Kofi Annan‘s peace plan and that it supports the U.N. monitoring mission — so long as it doesn’t violate Syrian sovereignty. But he said that Syria is currently engaged in negotiations with Annan’s team on the mandate of such a mission. For his part, Jaafari claimed Syrian opposition elements have been responsible for 50 violations of the cease-fire, a claim that was challenged by Rice and other council diplomats.

The brittle peace presents serious risks for the United Nations, which has traditionally been reluctant to send its peacekeepers into a hot war where there is no peace to keep and no durable political settlement in place. In Syria, the government and armed and civilian opposition leaders have not even begun to talk to each other.

Still, the council resolution reinforces Annan’s six-point plan, which calls on both sides to cease fighting, enter political talks, urges Syria to release political prisoners, guarantees freedom of movements for journalists and humanitarian aid workers, and allows peaceful demonstrations.

The council’s action today is the first step in a two-stage process that will lead to the establishment of a full-fledged U.N. monitoring mission staffed with about 250 monitors, most of them recruited from other U.N. missions in the region. Today’s resolution calls on the U.N. secretary general to present the council with a detailed blueprint for the monitoring mission by April 18. The council is expected to pass another resolution authorizing the new U.N. mission.

Today’s resolution goes beyond Annan’s peace plan, however, by pressing Syria to return its security forces and heavy weapons in the barracks. The Annan plan only requires Syria to begin its pullbacks of military assets from key cities.

The resolution also calls on Ban Ki-moon, an outspoken critic of the Bashar al-Assad regime, to report "any obstructions to the effective operation" of the U.N. team to the Security Council, a provision that is likely to increase pressure on the regime to comply. The council will "further steps as appropriate" if the Syrians’ or the opposition fail to comply.

Today’s action by the council followed a contentious round of negotiations that pitted the United States and its European and Arab allies against Russia. Moscow had opposed efforts to include language requiring Syria to empower the monitors with greater freedom of movement and action, saying their mandate needed to be negotiated with the Syrian government.

In order to secure Russian support, the United States and other key sponsors of the resolution were forced to strip out provisions from the resolution that would have required Syria to provide unimpeded access throughout the country. Instead, it merely "calls upon" the Syrian government to guarantee "full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access" for the U.N. monitors.

Analysts said that the new monitoring mission will be unlikely to fundamentally alter the military balance of power in Syria or end the violence, but that it may provide a boost to U.N.-backed efforts to mediate a political settlement.

"I don’t think the small monitor team alone can make a difference on the ground," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. "Its significance is more as a small step to build momentum behind Annan plan, demonstration of international consensus, and test of Assad. The drawn out negotiations for even such a small step don’t bode well. It’s important to push forward quickly or else the point of such a small step will be lost." 

"The initial deployment of monitors is a political gesture, and could be undercut by a rapid return to violence," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation. "Nonetheless, the Western powers in the Security Council were right to insist that the monitors should be guaranteed freedom of movement and unimpeded access to civilians."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola