U.N. contemplates new options for failed Syria monitoring mission

With the violence in Syria returning to levels that have surpassed the rate of killing that preceded the U.N-Arab League brokered cease-fire on April 12, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed a series of options for remaking the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The options — contained in a report to the U.N. Security ...

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Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

With the violence in Syria returning to levels that have surpassed the rate of killing that preceded the U.N-Arab League brokered cease-fire on April 12, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed a series of options for remaking the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS).

The options -- contained in a report to the U.N. Security Council -- range from withdrawing the mission of 300 unarmed observers to reinforcing it with an armed protection force. But the option clearly favored by U.N. planners calls for a shift from a monitoring mission to a "mediation operation" after the mission's current mandate expires on July 20.

The report reflected deep pessimism in U.N. circles about the prospects for the Syrian government, which is blamed for starting the violence, and the armed opposition putting down their weapons and pursuing a negotiated settlement to the crisis.

With the violence in Syria returning to levels that have surpassed the rate of killing that preceded the U.N-Arab League brokered cease-fire on April 12, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has proposed a series of options for remaking the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS).

The options — contained in a report to the U.N. Security Council — range from withdrawing the mission of 300 unarmed observers to reinforcing it with an armed protection force. But the option clearly favored by U.N. planners calls for a shift from a monitoring mission to a "mediation operation" after the mission’s current mandate expires on July 20.

The report reflected deep pessimism in U.N. circles about the prospects for the Syrian government, which is blamed for starting the violence, and the armed opposition putting down their weapons and pursuing a negotiated settlement to the crisis.

"I am deeply troubled by the dangerous trajectory of the conflict and the destructive dynamics at play on the ground. The peaceful popular uprising that started sixteen months ago has transformed into a violent confrontation between the Government and armed opposition groups," Ban wrote. "Syria is now engulfed by violence and at risk of becoming a theater for full-blown civil war, with grave implications for the people of Syria and for people in the region."

According to the proposal, the U.N. would relocate its operation to Damascus, scale back its monitoring patrols, and reinforce its stable of political affairs officers and human rights experts who would intensify their contacts with government and opposition leaders in an effort to start political talks between the warring parties. The report also notes that U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan will travel to Damascus and key capital from the "action group" to prod concerned states into backing political negotiations.

If progress is made, and an enforceable cease-fire is achieved, then the U.N. would quickly restart its patrols with the aim of monitoring enforcement of the cease-fire. Here is the key passage of options outlined in Ban’s 25 page report:

OPTIONS FOR THE FUTURE OF UNSMIS

58. The subsequent upsurge in incitement and armed violence by the parties has now reached, and in some places exceeded, the levels seen prior to the initial cessation of violence. Should the Government and armed opposition groups decide to continue to pursue a military response to the current conflict, the effectiveness of UNSMIS would need to be reviewed. At the time of writing, there was little evidence pointing to an imminent change in these positions, pending the anticipated impact of the pending the anticipated impact of the 30 June JSE-convened Action Group decisions.

59. The Council’s decision to deploy a peacekeeping monitoring mission in Syria was taken on the basis of certain assumptions, foremost among them that the parties involved in the conflict would uphold their commitments to a cessation of violence in all its forms. The continuation of violence has altered the premise on which UNSMIS was established, such that unless these commitments are urgently re-affirmed and acted upon, a re-calibration of effort in response to the situation on the ground would be appropriate. A range of options have been explored, as outlined below, with the potential advantages and disadvantages of each in strengthening the Mission’s engagement in conditions other than those originally anticipated for the exercise of its mandated functions in support of the six-point plan.

60. The options presented address the withdrawal of UNSMIS; the expansion of military observation capacity or the addition of an armed protection element; maintaining the current size and posture; and a shift to civilian functions and redeployment to Damascus, with or without additional field presences. These proposals are neither exhaustive nor fully reflective of evolving conditions on the ground, nor account for operational and political developments subsequent to the submission of this report.

61. Should the political and security conditions render mandated Mission functions and fruitful interaction with all parties untenable, the withdrawal of UNSMIS may need to be considered. Withdrawal would eliminate risks to military observers and civilian staff. It would also point to the parties’ responsibilities to end hostilities, and underscore that the pursuit of military strategies is not a viable solution. This decision, however, would signal a loss of confidence in an early return to a sustainable cessation of violence and remove the sole source of independent monitoring of the six-point plan implementation on the ground. It would likely precipitate a further blow to efforts to stabilize the situation on the ground, and render the prospect of a negotiated Syrian-led transition, as laid out by the Action Group, more difficult, jeopardizing the unity built around this way forward. Furthermore, without the Mission in place, the Syrian people would have no local mechanism through which to engage in dialogue towards a durable settlement.

62. Alternatively, the potential to bolster UNSMIS could be considered. Expanding the number of military observers would increase the scope and scale of observation capacity. A commensurate augmentation of civilian staff to support the larger presence and the mixed military-civilian functions would also be necessary, increasing the size of the Mission footprint throughout the country.

63. This measure should be considered relative to the Mission’s ability to conduct observation tasks, fact-finding on incidents, and reporting on compliance with the six-point plan, which depends on a permissive environment that, at the moment, does not exist. This implies a return to a cessation of violence and significant improvement in the current factors limiting mandate implementation. Expansion also treats the strategic and political challenges facing the Mission with a quantitative rather than qualitative remedy. The risk of exposure would increase in tandem with expansion, as well as unrealistic expectations of UNSMIS protective and intervention capabilities across constituencies. In the current context, these expectations are already pronounced and, going unmet, have led to aggression and direct attacks against the Mission. Expansion of UNSMIS in this way risks an unacceptably high security exposure without commensurate benefit.

64. A second option for bolstering the Mission would entail deployment of a necessarily sizeable armed force-protection element as a security guarantor for the work of the unarmed observers and civilian staff. This would enable the Mission to maintain team sites in the field and close contact with local communities, in addition to augmenting national security provision. An armed protection component would also require host country consent and troop contributors willing to perform that role. Neither of these preconditions appears likely. Moreover, a deployment of armed peacekeepers would immediately raise expectations of civilian protection within the context of ongoing and intensive violence.

65. Maintaining the Mission in its current size and configuration presents another option. This would enable efforts on all aspects of the six-point plan to continue, and strengthening of relationships and patterns of local-level engagement already established. It would also convey the determination to restore a cessation of violence. Current assessments, however, suggest that prospects for the latter remain uncertain. UNSMIS would remain configured for tasks it cannot implement. In this case, the risk exposure would not diminish, nor would expectations to deliver a peaceful resolution. Opportunities to strengthen UNSMIS support for the non-military aspects of the six-point plan would remain limited, cementing the status quo in place.

66. The individual merits of each of the proposals mentioned above appear to be outweighed by the potential negative implications and disincentives foreseen if armed confrontation continues at the current level. In this light, a shift in Mission structure and focus could be envisioned.

67. Drawing on the Mission’s experience to date and in the context of large-scale violence on the ground, options which strengthen support for dialogue with and between the parties, and enhance attention to the political track and rights issues across the six point plan’s components could be considered. In conjunction, UNSMIS could retain a military observer capability to conduct effective verification and fact-finding tasks, though with a limited scope for action if current conditions persist. Within the authorized strength of  300, the observer capacity could be adjusted substantially should conditions permit — or otherwise — the extension of the Mission’s reach.

68. This UNSMIS presence would focus on activities within the mandate that can be achieved under current circumstances, and that would be useful in building support for the Joint Special Envoy’s efforts. Capacities for "good offices" would be strengthened to seize opportunities to foster dialogue, to broker local-level agreements to calm tensions and promote ceasefires between the sides, and to deepen engagement where possible, as steps toward confidence-building and stability where signals from the sides encourage such measures.

69. If UNSMIS were re-oriented in this manner, the Mission would redeploy from the field to the capital to minimize risks, retaining core civilian and military observer capacities to focus on the spectrum of initiatives feeding into the political process. From a central hub in Damascus, the civilian component would continue liaison and dialogue with opposition and Government representatives in the provinces as security conditions allow. This model would maintain a United Nations presence in situ dedicated to the promotion of the six-point plan with all parties. It would expand direct engagement with the Syrian authorities and opposition groups and report on progress towards the plan’s objectives. This presence would cover the range of issues, involve the scope of interlocutors, and be positioned to scale up quickly to capture or expand on gains in the process.

70. Under this option, adequate civilian capacities would be devoted to maintaining the network of liaison relationships at the national and local levels, seeking forward steps on he six-point plan through intensive facilitation of political dialogue, inclusion of local actors in the broader fora, and building confidence in the process. Continued efforts on detention and rights issues would complement and benefit from the Mission’s primary political engagement functions. A reduced military observer component would support these civilian-led activities with military liaison and, as it does now, conduct visits to incident sites to conduct fact-finding and verification tasks. This structure could be expanded to include selected field offices, local conditions and security permitting, which would function within the same operational framework, enabling broader geographic coverage and reach to pivotal areas outside the capital.

71. Retaining the core structural elements of the Mission would allow UNSMIS to build up and expand its activities as improvements occur, and strengthen those capacities which prove to benefit the six-point plan and the political track. A consolidated presence, reoriented to maximize UNSMIS capacities to facilitate political dialogue and diminish exposure to mandate implementation impediments, appears preferable in current conditions, and reflects an equally responsive structural and operational flexibility as conditions change. This model strengthens the conciliation approach and building support for the six-point plan, but is not without drawbacks. At a minimum, it implies that establishment of a sustained cessation of violence is not an immediate prospect, and limits observation and reporting capacity concerning violations of a reputed cessation of violence accordingly. Popular opinion may misinterpret intensified advocacy at the central level as privileging Government prerogatives, while reducing access to opposition groups outside the capital. Nonetheless, the risks associated with this approach may be more acceptable in comparison to the benefits of enhanced engagement and the uncertainty of alternatives.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Tag: Syria

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