As soon as Gen. Robert Mood stepped out of his white SUV he was mobbed by hundreds of men, women, and children.
The leader of the unarmed UN observer mission to Syria had come to the village of Muhassan, and the Sunni population was ready for him. They carried pictures of the "martyrs" killed here since the Syrian uprising began.
The children shouted, "Bashar is a donkey," and everyone crowded around the Norwegian general before he got down to business: A meeting with senior commanders of the Free Syrian Army, the loosely structured rebel army fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad's Baath regime.
Muhassan is an FSA stronghold, but it is only a short drive from the provincial capital of Deir Ez-Zour near the Iraqi border, which remains in government hands. Between the two is the landscape of a Syrian civil war that has only deepened since Mood's mission began in April.
Rebels from the country's Sunni majority lust for revenge after massacres blamed on the government. Assad supporters, most from his minority Alawite sect, dismiss the rebels as foreign terrorists and call for tougher government reprisals. For many, the conflict has become an existential one: win, or risk being wiped out.
Gen. Mood's job is to convince both sides they're not interested in destroying the other. That proposition grows tougher by the moment. A conversation with the governor of Deir Ez-Zour, Samir el-Sheikh, illustrates how far apart both sides are. He was pleasant enough during the meeting earlier that day, but his tone was anything but conciliatory.
"The government has been far too patient with these people ... the armed groups simply have to give up their weapons," says Gov. Sheikh, an Alawite who was appointed governor after the uprising began. "But they don’t want this situation to end because they are criminals and they are getting rich off this situation. The real opposition is in the parliament in Damascus.”
The governor apologizes for being slightly hard of hearing – a result, he says, “of all the shooting I did in the 1980s.” The early 80's witnessed the last big uprising against the Baath regime, led at the time by the Muslim Brotherhood. Back then Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, was president, and the uprising ended in 1982 after the Syrian Army sacked the city of Hama, with at least 10,000 residents killed.
To be sure, the younger Assad's regime has not carried out a massacre on that scale since protests broke out in March 2011. But the US and rebel activists say there is mounting evidence of systemic killing of civilians, as well as rebel fighters, and many expect the violence to worsen. The UN alleges children have been targeted for torture and execution by pro-government militias in the past year.
Yesterday, rebel activists alleged Syrian government forces shelled a neighborhood of Deir Ez-Zour, killing 10, after anti-Assad protests broke out. In recent weeks, there have been reports of major massacres by pro-government militias and evidence that heavy mortars have been used to shell densely-packed cities. The State Department alleges that fresh massacres are being planned by the government and the UN finally admitted today what had long been apparent – that the country is in the midst of a civil war.
Sunni teen: 'I can't go anywhere'
But despite the challenges, Mood appears undaunted.
“If the choice is between hopeful and pessimistic I would land on hopeful,” says Mood, in charge of a 271-member observer mission, after his meetings. “What we’ve seen in Deir Ez-Zour is that people want to get back to work, they want food on the table, they want their children in school, they’re concerned about their crops. On the other hand the governor is eager to find a solution for his [province] and he is 100 percent committed to the six-point plan.”
Afterwards, Mood told Syrian TV that the meeting had been constructive. “The governor has promised to release all the [rebel] prisoners if the other side puts down its weapons,” he said.
But the likelihood of the opposition surrendering at this point is slim and none, and the cease-fire that was supposed to take effect in April has been shot full of holes right from the start. And after months of bloodshed it is hard to imagine how the Syrian opposition could agree to any deal that doesn’t include the departure of President Assad and his regime. It is just as unimaginable that Assad would agree to share power with what his regime has consistently referred to as “terrorists.”
In this region, that has left many Syrians caught in the middle, and the danger doesn't just come from the regime. "Anyone working for the government is a target," says an 18-year-old Sunni in Deir Ez-Zour who requested anonymity. "My dad works for the government, and I can't go anywhere in Deir Ez-Zour for fear of being killed or kidnapped."
Not long ago, he and friends survived a kidnapping attempt. "We never knew who they were, but they seemed to have coastal accents," he says, suggesting that they were Alawites. "I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. The opposition is after me because of my dad, but 13 friends from my tribe have been killed by the Army. The situation is quite hopeless."
Of course, Mood is not in Syria to impose peace. Kofi Annan’s six-point plan merely asks everybody to be nice while the Security Council members figure a way out of the current stalemate, with Russia so far vetoing a tougher stance against the Assad government.
“We don’t have the luxury of years; we have at best months,” says Mood. “The spiral of violence can only lead to an outcome that nobody wants, a nightmare scenario that would have huge consequences for Syria and the region.”
The Syrian opposition is increasingly skeptical about the UN observers mission. Activists have started posting pictures of UN observers smoking water-pipes at sidewalk cafes while atrocities go unmonitored nearby.
That’s probably a bit unfair, given the limited mandate and resources of the UN mission, but it does strike the visitor that the parking lot at the Damascus hotel where many of the observers stay seems to be full of UN vehicles at any time of the day.
Expectations that the UN observers could help lift the fog of war have also fallen short. Observers haven't been able to establish who is responsible for the big massacres such Although the observers have established that a massacre did occur at Houla, and last week at Al-Qubeir, it has not assigned blame.
The same goes for a massacre in Deir Ez-Zour at the end of May, when the bodies of 13 men were found, shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs. “It is impossible for us to go beyond establishing the facts,” Mood says, “but this is tremendous in itself.”
The people of Muhassan are not convinced. During Mood’s visit, complaints are everywhere. “As soon as you leave here we will be attacked, and what happened in Houla will happen here,” says a man who identifies himself only as Abu Leith.
Muhassan is surrounded by the Syrian Army, which has established forward bases in a school and a water tower. Abu Leith says most men here have not left the area for months, “because they have wanted lists at the checkpoints and most of the men here are on the list.”
The graffiti at the Army checkpoints betrays the mentality of the soldiers. “Assad, or we burn down the country.” In the event, Muhassan was not attacked that night, and all of Deir Ez-Zour had a quiet night during Mood’s overnight stay. But three days later Abu Leith called with the information that the soldiers in the water tower have fired on a mini-bus taking girls to school, killing one girl. The FSA attacked the checkpoint, and the Army responded with shelling, he said.
Could be worse
Still, the UN observer mission is an improvement over an earlier mission of Arab League observers. Activists in Damascus still laugh when they recall how the observers were tricked into going to the wrong neighborhoods because the regime had switched street signs on them.
But in Deir Ez-Zour it was no laughing matter. On a rooftop in a poor area of Deir Ez-Zour, an activist who calls himself Alaa El-Deiri recalls how people gathered in the town’s Midilgi Square last January after word got out that the Arab League observers were coming to town. “The observers never came. After the Army was through 20 protesters had been killed,” says Mr. Deiri.
Last year, Midilgi Square had been Deir Ez-Zour’s own "Tahrir Square." But unlike in Cairo, there was no foreign media to bear witness. For 51 days, pro-democracy protesters held out. Then the army moved in. In the following week, 117 protesters were killed, says El-Deiri. “We are the forgotten city.”
One concrete effect of the UN presence is that the flatscreen TV in the hotel where the observers stay in Deir Ez-Zour is showing Deir Ez-Zour TV, an opposition satellite channel that runs continuous footage of atrocities blamed on the government.
That may seem odd, given that the TV is right next to Assad’s official portrait. But a UN monitor from Morocco is holding the remote.