Experts: UN observers' credibility dented

2012-05-29 21:47

Beirut - The massacre in the central Syrian town of Houla has dented the UN observer mission's credibility and may be a turning point in the international community's response to the regime, analysts say.

UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan "placed his bets on the monitors' presence stemming abuses. But he may have lost his bet, though it may be a little too early to say so," UN expert Alexandra Novosseloff said.

Over the past month, nearly 300 observers were progressively deployed in 10 Syrian towns to monitor a truce that went into effect on April 12.

But after a relative lull in the first weeks of the ceasefire, the violence raged anew.

Arriving in Houla just hours after the massacre ended, although anti-regime activists first reported an army assault on Friday afternoon, the monitors could do little more than count the bodies of at least 108 victims, among them around 50 children.


Activists posted amateur videos online showing UN monitors taking notes and photographs of horrific scenes, while some observers were visibly embarrassed by their inability to do more than witness and document the tragedy.

The massacre, which prompted a massive global outcry, made Syrian anti-regime activists sceptical of the joint UN-Arab League mission's effectiveness.

The mission's mandate is due to expire in mid-July, and in an interview with French daily Le Monde, mission chief Major General Robert Mood admitted on Monday that its future was uncertain.

The observers' role is to "offer Syrians the choice to opt for peace," he said. "If the violence continues at its current rate, we'll have to find another way out."

Renewed violence may give rise to the international consensus needed for firmer action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.


In apparently co-ordinated moves on Tuesday, the European Union, the United States and other governments including Australia, Canada and Switzerland ordered out top Syrian diplomats in protest at the Houla killings.

"The [observer] mission was born out of the international community's incapacity to agree on a firmer course of action," said Peter Harling of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"The Houla massacre might change the situation in two ways. It might lead certain countries to increase their aid to the armed opposition, while resuming efforts in favour of a military intervention," said the Syria expert.

"Or it might push other countries, mainly Russia and China, to put forward a genuine political solution, which will require them to put all their energy into convincing the regime."

But if the international community does not find an alternative, it will have to extend the UN mission's mandate, experts say.


"If UN Security Council members, including the US, consider the mission failed, they may then decide to veto any resolutions extending its mandate," said Jocelyn Coulon, director of the Research Network on Peace Operations.

"But with no alternative to offer, it is more likely that Annan will call on the council to extend the mission's mandate for three months... especially if he makes progress in political negotiations," Coulon said, adding that this is the option Syria's powerful neighbour Turkey backs.

"There's a 50-50 chance that the international community will take this route, because the Annan plan is the only diplomatic solution on offer at the moment," said Novosseloff of Assas-Paris 2 University.

"If the observers are sent home at the end of their mission, with no Plan B in sight, the Syrians will feel even more abandoned than they do already," she added.

But having failed to implement the ceasefire Annan brokered, the observers can continue to document the violence - insofar as the Syrian authorities will allow them to - to help the international justice system take action, should a legal case against the Syrian authorities be opened.

"Peacekeepers' testimonies have a special weight before the International Criminal Court," Coulon pointed out.

Read more on:    un  |  kofi annan  |  syria

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