Richard Gowan: The U.N. Mission in Syria. Heading for Heroic Failure? Dal World Politics Review

Perché l’ONU è così pessimista sull’esito della missione di osservazione in Siria? Non sono solo le dimensioni troppo contenute della missione  rispetto ai suoi ambiziosi obiettivi : in passato le Nazioni Unite hanno dispiegato contingenti ugualmente piccoli. La vera ragione è che UNSMIS – questo è l’acronimo della missione – è dispiegata nel mezzo di un conflitto benché non sia un’operazione di peacekeeping. Inoltre, Russia e Stati Uniti hanno previsto degli obiettivi contrapposti per la missione.

Di Richard Gowan, ECFR Senior Policy Fellow

World Politics Review, 2 Maggio 2012

When the United Nations sends peacekeepers to war zones, there are often excessive expectations about what they can achieve. By contrast, pessimism surrounds the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), which is supposed to oversee a ceasefire and create space for talks between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and its opponents. U.S. officials, having fought hard in the Security Council to maximize the mission’s autonomy and authority, have warned that it is too weak to succeed. While only a handful of the planned total of 300 hundred monitors are on the ground so far, the Norwegian general in charge has admitted that even 1,000 might not be sufficient.

Many previous U.N. missions have been undermanned and overwhelmed. And this isn’t the smallest peacekeeping operation the U.N. has launched. In 1965, the organization authorized two military observers to help track a U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic. But it’s rare for Security Council members and U.N. officials to emphasize that a new operation is likely to fail. Why are they doing so in the Syrian case?

The answer may be that UNSMIS marks a deeply troubling turning point in U.N. peacekeeping. Since the late-1990s, U.N. officials, haunted by the organization’s failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, have pushed to ensure that peace operations are properly equipped to stabilize weak countries — or at least robust enough not to implode in an emergency. As Bruce Jones recently wrote in World Politics Review, U.N. missions in hot spots such as Côte d’Ivoire have proved unexpectedly resilient under pressure.

By contrast, UNSMIS looks like a dangerously minimalist response to a fierce crisis, although U.N. planners have done an honorable job of trying to design it properly. While the idea for a “supervision mechanism” is rooted in Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria, the U.N. secretariat came up with an ambitious mission concept, involving not only military monitors — who are sometimes not very good at understanding underlying sources of violence — but also civilian experts on political affairs and human rights.

The problem is that UNSMIS is not really a peacekeeping operation. Though it is meant to supervise a ceasefire, it is in fact being deployed to watch over a live conflict — and the Security Council’s members know this. Russia has maneuvered to limit the mission’s ability to report on the fighting. Western diplomats have pushed back, demanding that UNSMIS must be able to move freely and have access to Syrian citizens.

Both sides recognize that the Syrian war is not over. They have both wanted UNSMIS to deploy, but for very different reasons. Moscow may have hoped that the monitors would at least report some reduction in Syrian military offensives, especially involving tanks and artillery, thereby reducing pressure on its clients in Damascus. The Russians may have calculated that the observers would also catalogue ceasefire violations by rebel forces, justifying a more “balanced” approach to ending the conflict.

Conversely, the U.S. and its allies appear to have concluded that the main purpose of UNSMIS is to provide evidence that the Assad regime is continuing attacks unabated. It would be unfair to argue that they have wanted the mission to fail. At times, Western officials have shared the Russian hope that the U.N. deployment would persuade the Assad regime to reduce its use of heavy weapons. Yet they have also underlined — against Russian opposition — that Syria must face penalties if UNSMIS proves unsustainable.

So UNSMIS has been cast in two patently incompatible roles. For Russia, the mission is meant to be an alibi for continued inaction over Syria. For the West, it is meant to be a trigger for more severe measures — although options for applying new pressure on Damascus short of the use of force are becoming harder to find.

For the Syrian authorities, the mission is a useful distraction. Damascus has dragged out debates over the exact terms of its deployment, by objecting to proposals for the U.N. to bring in planes and helicopters, for instance. For its part, the opposition has treated UNSMIS as a preordained failure. Meanwhile, the deeper question of how to make peace in Syria risks getting lost under the weight of technical disputes.

Does all this mean that UNSMIS should never have been launched at all? Senior U.N. officials were reportedly deeply torn over the issue. They must now be aware that there is a very good chance that the mission will be judged a disaster. There are reports that Syrian security services have targeted citizens interviewed by the U.N.’s monitors, and officials in New York are still looking for personnel to bring the mission to full strength.

But it may be wrong to judge UNSMIS on its ability or inability to keep a non-existent peace in Syria. Instead, the real question is whether its potential failure will have any effect on international diplomacy over the crisis. If UNSMIS sinks without a trace, it will be a setback for the West and the credibility of U.N. operations elsewhere. If it acts as a trigger for some sort of decisive intervention, it may be counted as some sort of heroic failure. But it could leave lasting scars on U.N. peacekeeping either way.

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