The shadow of past international failures in Bosnia and Rwanda hangs over special envoy Kofi Annan and the U.N. Security Council as they dig in for a prolonged showdown with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
Annan, who is expected to brief the Security Council about the Syria crisis again Tuesday, was head of the U.N. peacekeeping department from 1993 to 1996 -- the dark years of the Bosnia war and the Rwanda genocide.
The butchering of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995 “will forever haunt the history of the United Nations,” he once said. Annan also said he could have “done more” to stop the slaughter of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994.
Senior diplomats quote the former U.N. secretary general as saying he is determined to avoid a repetition of those failures.
“These are episodes which have marked his life,” said one U.N. diplomat who has had contact with Annan over the Syria mission.
“If someone fires on the observers or there are massacres, it will not be like Bosnia -- we will not act as though nothing has happened,” the diplomat quoted Annan as saying.
“Annan considers that his main weapon in this showdown is his prestige, his credibility, and he could lose that if there are one or two or three ceasefires which don’t work, as there was in Bosnia,” added a western envoy, according to AFP.
“There is a certain deja vu quality” to the war in Syria, Annan’s spokesman, Ahmed Fawzi, told U.S. media chain McClatchy Newspapers last week. Annan, like the U.N.-backed negotiators in Bosnia, cannot order force if Assad does not keep his commitments.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy is earning praise for the way he has kept the international powers behind the six-point peace plan agreed with Assad -- while at the same time keeping pressure on the Syrian leader.
But the U.N. envoys who in public have spoken so strongly in favor of Annan are now wondering how much longer his mission can go on and what future action can be taken.
The U.N. Security Council voted on Saturday to send 300 unarmed observers to Syria to monitor a fragile ceasefire. But the United States has already said it may not support the renewal of the mission after the first 90-day mandate.
The United States, Britain and France have called for sanctions if the observers cannot work. That will put them on a collision course with Russia, Syria's last major ally, which fiercely opposes sanctions.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a lengthy, painful and difficult process, but there is no alternative. The alternative is a further deterioration of the situation, further bloodshed,” said Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin when appealing for all countries to “work very doggedly in support of Kofi Annan.”
Given the dim prospects for the observer mission and the likelihood that Russia would veto any U.N. sanctions, many western capitals are already asking -- what next?
“Annan is a prisoner of his own mediation. He is not likely to say, ‘I am stopping because of Syria’,” the U.N. diplomat said.
“There has to be a time when we say, ‘Mr Annan, it is not working.’ But the question is when? We cannot say that the Annan mission has failed as long as we have not gone to the end of the road. That will be a political decision,” the diplomat added.
Tony Blair, the international Middle East conflict mediator and former British prime minister, says that efforts to reach a negotiated solution have to be given a chance.
He told CBS television that he does not expect to see foreign troops in Syria. “But I do expect that if Assad reneges on his commitments and they carry on killing the civilians, then I think we will see a gradual buildup of additional actions like corridors that allow help to get in, possibly secure zones that will protect the Syrian people and Syrian refugees.”
A senior U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said all these ideas are being considered in “contingency plans” -- along with the best ways to get U.N. observers out of Syria in a hurry.
It will be the first time the U.N. has sent an unarmed mission into a conflict zone, and Western diplomats warned the team will likely fail unless the Assad regime complies with the cease-fire, according to The Associated Press.
The Syrian opposition and its Western supporters suspect the regime is largely paying lip service to Annan’s truce plan, in part to appease allies Russia and China while trying to dodge truce provisions that could threaten its grip, such as pulling tanks and troops from towns and allowing peaceful protests. The Syrian government hasn’t complied with those terms, prompting bitter complaints from the U.N. chief last week.
Skeptical Syrian activists
Some Syrian activists were skeptical about the U.N. mission, based on the performance of the advance team that arrived last week.
“This U.N. observers thing is a big joke,” said activist Mohammed Saeed. “Shelling stops and tanks are hidden when they visit somewhere, and when they leave, shelling resumes.”
Annan expressed hope that an expanded observer mission can stabilize the situation and create the conditions for talks that would “address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Syrian people.” He reiterated his demand that the government must comply with all points of the plan, including silencing heavy weapons and withdrawing from population centers.
But skeptics say the regime has overwhelming motives to stall and evade, since full compliance could hasten its overthrow. Opposition leaders have said large numbers of protesters would likely flood the streets if they no longer had to fear regime violence, AP reported.
Saeed is a resident of the Damascus suburb of Douma, which he said was attacked Sunday by government troops firing artillery and machine guns. He said loud explosions shook the city early, causing panic among residents. Some used mosque loudspeakers to urge people to take cover in basements and in lower floors of apartment buildings.
In contrast, the central city of Homs enjoyed a second day of relative quiet, after several weeks of relentless artillery barrages by regime forces that have devastated large tracts of rebel-held areas in the city.
Five observers visited Homs for the first time Saturday, walking along debris-strewn streets lined by gutted apartment buildings. Two monitors stayed on in the city after the rest of the team returned to Damascus, said team spokesman Neeraj Singh.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the continued presence of observers in Homs is deterring regime attacks.
Local activist Salim Qabani said a mortar shell landed in the Jouret al-Shayah district of Homs, setting a home on fire. But before the observer visit, shells struck the city every few minutes on some days.
Risks and exaggerated expectations
At the United Nations, diplomats warned Saturday that the enlarged observer mission faces considerable risks and exaggerated expectations.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador, noted that the unarmed observers will have to depend for security on the Syrian regime, seen as the main violator of the cease-fire.
They “will be deployed in numbers too small to cover the entire country, but large enough to give rise to expectations that will be impossible to meet if the Syrian government does not (meet) its commitments toward a sustained cessation of violence,” Rice said.
Arthur Boutellis, an expert on peacekeeping missions, said unarmed observers are usually deployed only once a cease-fire has taken hold, but that in this case, the U.N. is using them to make the cease-fire stick.
“The conditions (for deploying observers) are not fully there,” said Boutellis, an analyst at the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think tank. “That’s why the U.N. and the secretary general are stretching a bit the use of observers. It's part of a political strategy.”
In Cairo, the opposition Syrian National Council said the number of U.N. monitors should be increased tenfold, to at least 3,000.
Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the group, said after a meeting with Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi that Syrian opposition factions would meet in Cairo on May 15 at the League headquarters to try and unify their ranks.
“We have asked Annan’s group from the first day to increase the number of monitors because 300 monitors are not enough to protect the Syrian people,” Kodmani said after meeting Arabi, according to Reuters.
“We need at least 3,000 monitors and hope that the number would increase quickly.”
Earlier this year, the Arab League dispatched monitors to Syria, but withdrew them after a month because they were unable to halt the fighting.