Weighing up UN's options on Syria
Last Friday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon submitted a report to the Security Council with proposals on next steps for the monitoring mission in Syria, referred to as UNSMIS.
His recommendation was straightforward: reconfigure the mission, as it is obsolete under its current structure. But while the Security Council is mostly united on the need for a new mission ahead of its mandate expiring on July 20, they remain bitterly divided over how much pressure to apply to the Assad government as part of a renewal.
"In spite of the best efforts of UNSMIS to support the parties in the effort to de-escalate the crisis, there is not a cessation of violence, and the basic human rights whose protection is at the core of the [Annan] Plan continue to be violated," Ban wrote.
"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 recalibration of effort in response to the situation on the ground would be appropriate."
In the report, Ban listed a number of options for recalibration, including the full withdrawal of the mission, or reinforcing it by sending in additional soldiers.
Both options were deemed impractical.
Numerous UN diplomats have said they fear that a withdrawal would signal to the Syrian people that the international community was washing its hands of the conflict, while removing the sole means of independent fact-finding and monitoring of events on the ground.
A withdrawal could also cause an uproar among domestic Western constituents, who could lash out at their governments for turning away from atrocities.
Expanding the mission was also deemed unrealistic.
Since mid-June, the level of violence in Syria has been deemed dangerously high for monitors to work in, and monitoring operations have effectively ceased. Though observers occasionally go on patrols, they have mostly kept to their barracks. It is unlikely that more unarmed soldiers would increase their mobility.
Furthermore, sending in additional troops would raise false expectations about the ability of peacekeepers - originally sent there to observe a ceasefire - to actually protect civilians.
Another option, and the one most likely to be adopted, is maintaining the UN mission at its current size while re-configuring it into a dominantly civilian force that is promoted to peace-building from the ground up. Under such a setup, according to Ban Ki Moon's report as well as other UN sources, they would retain a core group of military observers to monitor the conflict when the level of violence permits.
This force would also redeploy from the field to Damascus, and at least one hundred unarmed monitors would be replaced by civilian staff. The focus of their work would be to act as a "trusted liaison" between the opposition and the Syrian government, in the hopefully eventuality that local dialogues open up. General Robert Mood, the current head of mission, would also be replaced by a civilian leader, to reflect the mission's goals more accurately.
Most importantly, the UN would remain on the ground as the eyes and ears of Kofi Annan's political team and the UN Security Council.
While Security Council diplomats generally agree to the need for this restructuring, they remain divided on whether or not to use a mandate renewal as part of a tactic to put more pressure on Assad.
On Tuesday evening, Russia circulated a draft resolution that would renew a monitoring mission along the lines of Ban's recommended reconfiguration.
But diplomats from France, the UK, Germany, and the United States say this doesn't go far enough. They want a renewal of the mandate to be conditional on Assad's full compliance with Kofi Annan's six-point plan and the Geneva agreements, including halting the use of heavy weapons, withdrawing from populated areas, allowing for humanitarian access, and facilitating a Syrian-led political transition.
They argue that a renewal would be meaningless without the threat of biting international sanctions.
"The fact is that UNSMIS, regrettably, is not at present able to do the job that this Council mandated it to do because of the regime's persistent refusal to take the basic steps to halt the violence," said Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, speaking after Kofi Annan's briefing on Wednesday.
"Without this Council taking concrete measures to increase the pressure for the Annan and Geneva plans to be implemented by the government, it's not plausible to assume that UNSMIS will be any more able to fulfill its mandate in the future than it is now."
Russia - which has already twice vetoed Western-led "Chapter 7" resolutions on Syria that included sanctions - remains adamantly opposed.
"We believe that Chapter 7, which implies using sanctions in that particular draft is not necessary, not appropriate, and would not serve the purpose," said Alexander Pankin, Russia's Deputy Ambassador to the UN, to Al Jazeera. "We think that one-sided application of sanctions against Assad's regime - as they call it - is not an appropriate way out."
Though the US threatened to push for full withdrawal if sanctions were not included in the new resolution, experts doubt they are serious about pulling out, nor that Western countries pushing for sanctions have the leverage to change the position of Russia.
A vote is planned for June 18.