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Is Syria getting too dangerous for the U.N.’s observers?

For more than six weeks, the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has been the target of attacks inside Syria and the subject criticism from the outside world because it has been unable to stop the killing there. The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson summed up the frustration with the monitors in a recent blog ...

For more than six weeks, the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) has been the target of attacks inside Syria and the subject criticism from the outside world because it has been unable to stop the killing there.

The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson summed up the frustration with the monitors in a recent blog post, pointing out that U.N. monitors were posted fewer than 15 kilometers from the site of the conflict’s worst killing, the massacre of 108 civilians, mostly women and children, at Al Houla.

"The observers have not stopped the killing, and have not reduced it, either, despite some initial wishful claims to the contrary (Where have U.N. observers, or peacekeepers, for that matter, ever stopped anything?)," he wrote.

It’s true that the U.N. monitors have not had a decisive impact on the violence, and that the worst massacres have occurred since they arrived. And it’s clearly unlikely that a contingent of 300 unarmed observers will exercise enough power to compel fighters to abide by the ceasefire agreement the U.N. is mandated to enforce.

But the monitors have provided one vital function that often gets lots overlooked. For the first time since the 15-month conflict began, the monitors have provided a steady diet of raw information, however incomplete, that has undercut the ability of Syria’s Russian and Chinese allies to deny the government’s role in atrocities there.

The mission has linked the Syrian military and pro-government militias to some of the worst atrocities in the country, for instance, documenting evidence of fresh tank tracks and the shelling of residences in the town of Houla. Indeed, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood‘s account of the mass killing in Al Houla was decisive in convincing China and Russia to support a Security Council condemnation of the Syrian government.

The U.N.’s nearly daily video accounts of events on the ground, including a series of images of blood-splattered bedrooms and pock-marked buildings hit by government shells, has fixed public attention on the crisis and provided a degree of clarity that was impossible before their deployment.

For instance, they have established that Syrian authorities have prevented U.N. monitors from entering the site of other massacres, including the village of Mazraat al-Quebeir, and documented the use of attack helicopters in the town of Haffa. They have also recorded a spike in opposition attacks against government targets.

"What we have seen on the ground is that the attacks by the armed opposition on official buildings, on government checkpoints and in other areas are becoming more effective and the government is taking greater losses," Mood told reporters in Damascus today. "What we are seeing on the government side is the employment of artillery, mortars, [and] army formations have become more what you would characterize as classical use of armed forces."

Although U.N. monitors frequently appear at the site of massacres after the perpetrators have destroyed evidence and the bodies have been buried, they have nevertheless been able to bear witness and record some clues as to what happened. In Haffa, the monitors detected "a strong stench of dead bodies was in the air and there appeared to be pockets in the town where fighting is still ongoing," said Sausan Ghosheh, the U.N. spokeswoman in Damascus. "The number of casualties is still unclear."

But the thing the monitors have not been able to do is to convince the warring parties to silence their guns, observe a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, and begin political talks on the country’s future. And without a viable peace process, the presence of U.N. monitors is likely to become increasingly difficult to justify, particularly given the growing risks they face on the ground.

On Tuesday, the U.N. released an image showing young men attacking a pair of U.N. vehicles, part of a convoy that had been blocked from reaching the town of Haffa. They were fired on as they retreated back to their base in Idlib. (A U.N. video showed damage sustained by one of the vehicles.) In fact, conditions have grown so insecure that the mission’s top official, General Mood, raised questions about the future of the monitoring mission, saying there is "concern among the member states providing observes that the risk level is approaching the level where they are not willing to accept it any more."

"Violence over the past 10 days has been intensifying willingly by the both parties, with losses on both sides and significant risks to our observers," he added. "The escalating violence is now limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects."

In New York, the U.N.’s peacekeeping department is pulling together a menu of options for the mission, which will likely include proposals to either reinforce the monitors’ mandate, which will expire on July 29, or to scale back its activities. The Security Council then will have to decide whether the contributions made by the monitors are worth the risk.

The U.N. monitors are like "300 sitting ducks in a shooting gallery, one IED away from a disaster," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told the U.N. Security Council. "We’re just sitting here watching this movie in slow motion and we all know what’s going to happen."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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