Syria: Why only 15 UN observers on the ground so far?

The UN says it will take a month to get the full 300-member observer mission on the ground, due to logistical difficulties. The delay could scuttle UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan.

Khaled al-Hariri/REUTERS
United Nations (UN) observers traveling in UN vehicles leave the UN office in Damascus, April 26, as they head to Douma, where protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been taking place.

The delay in fully deploying 300 observers to Syria threatens to jeopardize a shaky United Nations plan to resolve the year-long conflict.

The United Nations Security Council agreed on Saturday to send up to 300 unarmed military observers to Syria to monitor compliance with a cease-fire that was supposed to come into effect on April 12. The cease-fire and the observer mission is part of a six-point plan pushed by Kofi Annan, the UN's envoy to Syria. But only 15 monitors are presently in country and it could take a month before the full number has arrived.

The Syrian opposition is pitting hopes on the observer mission to stem the violence that the UN says has killed more than 9,000 since the uprising began in March 2011.

With observers on the ground, the opposition could resume the massive anti-regime demonstrations that marked the beginning of the effort to oust President Bashar al-Assad before the emergence of armed opposition groups and a slide toward a full-blown insurgency.

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But the ongoing violence, which claimed more than 20 lives yesterday, according to opposition activists, and the amount of time required before the observer mission is fully effective could scuttle the Annan plan prematurely.

"I can't understand why it is taking them so long to send just 300 observers. More people are dying every day they delay," says Ahmad, a Syrian opposition activist living in hiding in north Lebanon.

The UN says it is proceeding as fast as it can, and any delay is due to logistical difficulties.

"We are moving quickly to deploy the full group of observers," says Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the UN's department of peacekeeping operations. "You understand, of course, that the United Nations does not have standing military forces, that we are working with member states who provide members of their armed forces as observers for the ... mission in Syria. We are also putting in place logistical support, including preparing multiple locations for the observers to be based across the country."

He added that he could not give a schedule for the full deployment of the observers. Syria reportedly has placed conditions on the nationalities of the observers, although Mr. Dwyer said the preliminary understanding reached last week between Damascus and the UN on the observer mission "did not specify any requirements about nationality."

The continuing violence in Syria has put additional pressure on the UN to speed up the deployment. Mr. Annan reported to the UN Security Council this week that there were credible reports of regime forces entering areas previously visited by UN observers and killing people.

Opposition activists said yesterday that two people were killed by snipers in Douma, a northeast suburb of Damascus, as regime forces raided houses. UN monitors visited Douma the same day, although it was unclear whether they were there before or after the shooting.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé expressed frustration with the slow deployment of observers and warned that Annan's plan was in trouble.

"Things are not going well, the Annan plan is strongly compromised but there is still a chance for this mediation, on the condition of the rapid deployment of the 300 monitors," he said yesterday.

Mr. Juppé added that he wanted to see the observers deployed in two weeks, saying that Annan's next report to the UN Security Council on May 5 would be a "moment of truth."

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