The UN is mulling “light touch” options for monitoring a possible ceasefire in Syria that would keep its risks to a minimum by relying largely on Syrians already on the ground, diplomatic sources said.
The UN Security Council on Friday unanimously called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to draw up within a month options for monitoring a ceasefire in Syria. It is the second time since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011 that the council backed a plan for peace talks and a truce.
The talk about the UN’s role as monitor has gained urgency along with a new push for a ceasefire in Syria to take effect as early as next month, in parallel with talks between the government and opposition.
More than a dozen major powers, including the US, Russia and major European and Middle Eastern powers, have drawn up a road map for Syria peace talks.
UN planning for truce monitoring would seek to avoid repeating the “disaster” of a mission sent to Syria in 2012, diplomats said.
That operation failed because the warring parties had no interest in halting the fighting, they said.
Under the light-touch mechanism under consideration, the UN would rely on Syrian actors on the ground to report violations. This could possibly involve a small group of non-uniformed UN officials in Syria to carry out investigations of ceasefire violations, diplomats said.
“There’s the idea of ‘proxyism,’ where they were going to look at who would be credible on the ground to get information and to create a reporting mechanism from them to the UN,” a diplomatic source said.
To make the proxy approach work, major powers would need to agree on who is considered a credible Syrian actor.
“Who is it who’s responsible for the credibility of the information?” one diplomatic source asked. “The Syrians on the ground or the UN — which receives the information?”
The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations is likely to present an option to put UN peacekeepers on the ground. However, that approach is likely to be ruled out immediately, given the brutal war that has claimed more than 250,000 lives.
Diplomats on the council — which would be asked to approve any monitoring plan — also said that option is impossible.
Diplomats said they want to avoid a heavy UN footprint in Syria. A large number of UN officials on the ground in Syria would require a large security detail to protect them.
The UN had to suspend operations once before in Syria. After deploying about 300 unarmed monitors in April 2012, it was forced by August of that year to end the mission after the moderators became the target of angry crowds and gunfire.
The Security Council had sent in monitors after it endorsed then-UN Arab League mediator Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan for Syria calling for talks and a truce.
At that time, death toll estimates for the Syrian civil war were about 10,000 — a fraction of today’s estimate.
“The UN team that went in back then were very courageous and pushed their mandate as far as they could,” Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs professor Richard Gowan said.
The UN Disengagement Observer Force which monitors the border between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, has repeatedly seen its Blue Helmets under fire and even kidnapped by militants fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“It is clear that the security situation in Syria will be far, far worse this time around, so Ban needs to be creative,” Gowan said, adding that the use of surveillance drones is an option.
The planned ceasefire would not apply to the Islamic State group, al-Nusra Front and other jihadist groups.
That would make any truce “wildly complex” to monitor since its territory would be constantly shifting, one diplomat said.
Adding to the danger, the US, French, British and other militaries are bombing Islamic State group fighters and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, and Russian forces are attacking a wide array of rebel fighters, many of them backed by the West.
Preparing ceasefire monitoring options is a pointless exercise since none of the parties actually want to end the fighting, one analyst said.
“All the discussion at the UN seems to me entirely disconnected from reality,” Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot said.
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