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The UN and Syria

Christina Ruta / nhAugust 18, 2012

As the UN's observer mission to Syria prepares to withdraw on Sunday, experts are wondering what power the world body has over such conflicts. Some say UN involvement can still be an important symbolic gesture for peace.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

To many observers, the end of the United Nations' observer mission in Syria comes as no surprise. The unarmed UN observers had been in Syria since April to supervise a ceasefire between insurgent forces and President Bashir Assad's troops. But the fighting continued, and the observers met with heavy resistance - even coming under fire themselves.

On July 20, the mission was extended by 30 days. But one after the other, the 300 observers have left the country. The UN Security Council decided on Thursday (16.08.2012) to end the mission due to the ongoing violence and the Assad regime's use of heavy weapons. The UN mandate ends Sunday.

A rebel with the Free Syrian Army reacts to the sound of an aircraft following an airstrike on a building in the Hanano district of the northern restive city of Aleppo on August 15, 2012.
Escalating violence compelled the UN to end its Syria missionImage: PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages

Fool's errand?

Timur Goksel, who spent a long time in Lebanon with the UN's peacekeeping mission there, early on voiced doubts about whether the 300 unarmed observers would have any chance of helping to end the violence in Syria.

"Expectations are too high. Their presence alone can't solve the problem," he previously told German broadcaster ARD.

UN observers usually carry no weapons in order to give warring parties the impression they are neutral. The observers' tasks include taking up dialogue with both sides and creating willingness to come to a peaceful resolution. They also visit hotspots to try and get an objective impression of the situation on the ground.

Ekkehard Griep, Vice-Chairman of the United Nations Association of Germany, said a UN mission's success largely depends on warring parties' willingness to cooperate.

"The conflict in Syria has still not been de-escalated," he told DW. "The government on the one hand and the fragmented opposition parties on the other quite obviously have no interest in reaching a political solution. They are trying to achieve their goals militarily."

In such a situation, Griep added, UN observers stand no chance of successfully completing what they have been assigned by the Security Council.

Institutional issues

Griep also said other than the fact the peacekeeping mission came under gunfire, internal disagreement at the UN doomed the peacekeepers to failure.

"The mission has to be backed by the Security Council," he said. "If that's not the case, no UN peace mission stands any chance of success."

However, Security Council members Russia and China threatened to veto resolutions condemning violence by the Assad regime. Previous experience has shown Security Council members' interest in working for peace is limited by their own economic and strategic interests.

Oberstleutnant Dr. Ekkehart Griep
Ekkehart Griep from the UN Association of GermanyImage: DGVN

Many countries have long pushed for a democratization of the Security Council, which was founded after the Second World War and still reflects the global distribution of power at the time. But reforming the Security Council would require changing the UN charter, something that in turn requires approval by the council's five permanent members - along with China and Russia, they are France, the UK and the US. This situation makes critics doubt whether the UN can fulfill its tasks at all.

Nevertheless, Griep considers the UN crucial to peacekeeping around the world.

"The United Nations can and must play an important role," he said, "because there's no other organization on a global level that can provide legitimate answers to questions of peace and security."

Griep still favors peace missions even in light of the breakdown in Syria, saying such missions show the world that the international community is taking a stance and working to mitigate conflict.

He added that UN missions dealing with Cyprus and the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been successful in the past.

Uncertain future

Griep also pointed out adequate financial support and staffing are crucial to making peace missions succeed. He said that requires the support of all 193 UN member countries

He also called for regional organizations to play a bigger role in the future, saying the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are important players in the Syrian conflict.

Syrians fleeing increased violence arrive at the border between the Syrian town of Azaaz and the neighboring Turkish town of Kilis, on August 15, 2012.
Thousands of Syrians have fled the countryImage: PHIL MOORE/AFP/GettyImages

Edmond Mulet, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, said Thursday that after the mission to Syria ends, the UN will set up a small liaison office with 20 to 30 staff. After former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced his resignation as special envoy to Syria, his successor Lakhdar Brahimi is scheduled to take over next month. What effect the Algerian diplomat can have on the situation remains to be seen.