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U.N.'s troubled Syria observer mission gets a reprieve, for now

July 20, 2012 | 10:27 am

Mood-syriaBEIRUT -- The United Nations observer mission in Syria was launched 10 weeks ago with high hopes and lofty intentions, featuring a contingent of unarmed personnel from more than 50 nations responsible for monitoring compliance with a cease-fire that initially showed some signs of holding.

The mission’s relevance seemed to diminish, however, as violence escalated inexorably, leaving the vulnerable observers monitoring a truce that both sides decided to ignore. “Peacekeepers without a peace,” was how one diplomat put it.

The mission, with 300 observers and 90 civilian personnel, often seemed reduced to confirming massacres and documenting the bloody aftermath of pitched battles that the U.N. was helpless to prevent. It was largely suspended last month because of concerns for the observers' safety.

With the mission's mandate scheduled to expire at midnight Friday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a 30-day extension, while holding open the possibility of a longer presence if the U.N. confirms that the use of heavy weapons in Syria is ended and the amount of violence is reduced.

Few on the ground hold out much hope that those goals will be attained.

The vote came after the mission's future was thrown into grave doubt after the Security Council failed Thursday to agree on a path forward in Syria.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of using the mission’s uncertain future as “blackmail” to force support of U.N. sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had said he favors reorienting the mission’s focus to help promote dialogue. That appeared a herculean task in a deeply divided nation where combatants on both sides have expressed no intention of speaking to each other.

American diplomats have questioned the mission’s relevance. But U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said Thursday that Washington might consider a short extension to give the team time to pack up and decamp safely.

Among U.N. staff on the ground, the prospect of leaving things in worse shape than when the mission first arrived has generated a plain sense of disappointment.

“It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria, and the escalations we have seen in Damascus over the past few days [are]  a testimony to that,” Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, head of the observer mission, told reporters in Damascus this week before Friday's vote.

Mood, with his signature blue beret, deep voice and sober Nordic presence reminiscent of Swedish actor Max von Sydow, seems to have earned a certain respect from all sides during his tenure as chief of the mission. He signaled that he plans to leave.

The six-point peace plan of Kofi Annan, special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, appears to be in its death throes, despite Annan’s frequent travels to sundry world capitals and his exhortations for peace. The monitoring mission was supposed to be a cornerstone of the success of the plan. It hasn't worked out that way.

Events on ground in Syria have clearly overtaken diplomacy.

Mood voiced the hope that some U.N. representatives would remain in Syria, a sign that the international community hasn't written off the conflict.

“There is no moral justification for abandoning the Syrian people,” said the Norwegian general. “There should be a U.N. presence on the ground.”

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--Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, head of the U.N. mission in Syria, said he planned to leave but “there should be a U.N. presence on the ground.” Credit: Louai Beshara / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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