The UN Mission in Syria: A credible force or dead on arrival?

Present in Syria since April 15th 2012 and officially authorized on April 21st by the Security Council, the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) is one of the newest actors to enter what is increasingly being referred to as a civil war in Syria. From its arrival the mission has been plagued by direct and indirect attacks against its troops as well as a general inability to influence the various conflict actors or stem the rising level of violence on all sides. With the situation escalating to unspeakable level of violence and crimes against humanity, including massacres and crimes against children, does the mission have any role to play in Syria and if so what is it?

The Mission

UN peacekeeping missions have always been political creations, and UNSMIS is no exception. After months of political wrangling in the Security Council, meanwhile casualty figures steadily mounted in Syria, the resolution establishing UNSMIS was finally passed. This mission was a political compromise, a product of the reluctance of Syria’s allies (Russia and China) and Western powers from intervening directly in Syria as well a strong opposition to Western intervention by other actors including many members of the Arab League.

Despite the reluctance of the Security Council, the mission itself was deployed rapidly. Less than one month after the Syrian government committed to Kofi Annan’s Six Point Proposal and only 4 days after the April 11th ceasefire deadline, military observers where on the ground in Damascus. This is extremely quick in comparison to most UN missions, which normally take up to 6 months to deploy. The mandate of the mission, as composed by the Security Council, is “…to monitor a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties and to monitor and support the full implementation of the Envoy’s six-point proposal…” The numbers of unarmed military observers is mandated at 300. Although this may have been sufficient to monitor a robust ceasefire, it is a far cry from what the situation on the ground now demands.

The reality on the ground

Although a ceasefire was initially agreed upon by both the Syrian government and the armed opposition, it was never fully implemented. Violence has since the beginning of April increased not only in scale and scope but also in barbarity. Reports have emerged of massacres involving unarmed civilians, including women and children, in Houla and Qubair. An article published today by the BBC recounts how children have been used as human shields and tortured by government forces. According to the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, the treatment of children is shocking and bypasses anything she has witnessed in other conflicts. These acts are blatant violations of international humanitarian law and clearly constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.

Where do we go from here?

One major problem with modern UN peacekeeping operations is their deployment into complex conflicts in which there is no “peace to keep”. By design meant to sustain a cessation of violence, peacekeeping forces do not have the capacity or the mandate to end wars. As the ceasefire in Syria is very clearly being violated on all sides and Annan’s Six Point Proposal is slowly being strangled by daily bloodshed, should the Security Council declare it a quick failure and send peacekeepers home? Indeed, keeping peacekeepers in Syria under the false pretense that they are able to stop the civil war from developing is not only counterproductive but also dangerous as it can prevent the emergence of other initiatives on Syria.

Yet if the mission is seen for what it is, a small observer force backed strongly by many heavyweights in the international community, then a role for the mission can perhaps be gleaned. From the outset, the details of the conflict in Syria have been impossible to independently verify. The lack of independent media in Syria has allowed the government to perpetuate the that “terrorist groups” are responsible for all violence against the civilian population (as well as allowing the armed opposition to obscure its own violent acts). As the conflict escalates to unspeakable levels of violence against civilians, this information vacuum grows to conceal all manners of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Here is where UNSMIS has a role to play. UNSMIS is to an extent already playing this role, having visited and confirmed the occurrence of the massacre in Houla. Granted, this will not be of any solace to Syrian civilians who need an immediate cessation of violence and the prompt provision of humanitarian aid. However it may provide an indirect pressure mechanism against states loyal to the current Syrian regime, by exposing the extent to which this support is facilitating the perpetuation of war crimes.

Photo courtesy of VOA News.

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