Why the UN Syria Mission is Stuck

One week ago, the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, otherwise known as UNSMIS, grounded its 300 strong force amid increasing threats and attacks against the observers. They’d been shot at, harassed, and attacked with increasing frequency as they attempted to investigate alleged massacres. The unarmed observers were probably just one incident away from a catastrophe (think an IED striking their convoy) so they suspended patrols.

The observers are unarmed. They are not peacekeepers. They have no mandate and no ability to protect civilians or fight back against people shooting at them. They are simply there to observe and report. The irony in this is that the mission depends on the cooperation of the Syrian government to be successful. Naturally, the Syrian government would want to obstruct the mission as much as possible so as not to let them expose the government’s crimes.

In the early days their mere presence was a slight deterrent in some situations, but that deterrent effect seems to have eroded and now you have a group of military observers stuck in Syria not able to do their job, and no longer making much of a material difference on the ground.

The mission’s mandate expires on July 20. There is word that the Security Council will decide next week on what to do with the 300 observers in country. The status quo cannot be maintained: there’s little point in keeping military observers on the ground if they can’t leave their office. A more robust peacekeeping mission with the mandate (and capacity) to protect civilians in harms way is a non-starter because of the split Security Council and non-cooperation by Syria. So, the last best option being weighed is to recall some of the military observers and keep a small civilian component on the ground to basically serve as stand-by mediators in case there is a political breakthrough of some sort.  At least then the UN would have some presence on the ground.

This was clearly not the best-case scenario envisaged when UNSMIS was created. But present conditions are preventing UNSMIS from doing its job, so either it leaves or its job must change.