Bodies are piling up in Syria while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sits entrenched in his palace, but the international powers say there is no alternative to UN observers watching a non-existent ceasefire.
Two bombs that exploded near UN convoys in the first month of the UN mission highlighted how the unarmed military monitors are on one of the most perilous enterprises undertaken by the UN.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has now said he believes al-Qaeda was behind recent attacks in Damascus.
Syria is “very, very, dangerous,” Assistant Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Edmond Mulet said.
“They are there unarmed and there is no ceasefire, there is no peace agreement, there is no dialogue between the parties and it’s an urban warfare,” he said. “This is something we have never seen before. We have never placed our military observers in a situation like this.”
The UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) is close to its full strength of 300 monitors, but Western countries are still predicting that the mission will not be renewed after its 90-day mandate ends on July 20.
“There is a risk that at any moment military observers will be killed or injured,” British Permanent Representative to the UN Mark Lyall Grant said. “There have been some close shaves, so it is a situation we are keeping under close review.”
Artillery attacks on towns have fallen since the mission deployed, but the death toll is still high.
“It is the same strategy with a different tactic,” one senior UN diplomat said. “Instead of killing 100 they kill 60 and arrest 500.”
Rights groups and other sources said there has been an explosion in targeted killings. The UN says up to 10,000 people have been killed over the past 15 months.
Al-Assad has shown willingness to start political talks and the opposition is still too divided for negotiations, diplomats said.
However, no one has an alternative to the peace plan of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
“I know lots of questions have been asked about what happens if the plan fails,” Annan said last week. “I am waiting for some suggestions as to what else we do. If there are better ideas I will be the first to jump onto it.”
“There is no credible alternative,” German Permanent Representative to the UN Peter Wittig said.
As a result, the international community is sticking with Annan’s plan though most diplomats and observers say the a new Security Council battle over Syria is likely when the 90-day mandate ends.
Russia, al-Assad’s main international ally, could demand an extension of UNSMIS, along with fellow permanent member China, and India, Pakistan and South Africa.
The US, Britain and France, the three Western permanent members, are not yet sure how to call time on the mission. Even US officials who opposed UNSMIS are not yet calling Annan’s plan a failure.
Richard Gowan, a specialist at the Center on International Cooperation in New York University, has predicted that the Annan mission will be a “heroic failure.”
“It’s important that the Western powers allow Annan to declare failure himself, or Russia will attack them for killing his mission,” he said.
“Annan may feel he cannot give up, as this might be the final act in his long career as an international official, but if he feels that his plan is now dead, he should realize that there is greater honor in declaring this than carrying on hopelessly,” Gowan added.