Why the UN suspended ineffective observer mission in Syria

Citing the safety of unarmed observers, the UN has suspended its Syria monitoring effort. It's the first step toward crafting a new international approach.

The UN has suspended its two-month old observer mission in Syria. Norwegian General Robert Mood, who was running the effort meant to monitor a cease-fire that never materialized, is now expected in New York next week to discuss what comes next. That is likely to be a messy and inconclusive conversation.

Russia remains as committed as ever to opposing UN Security Council authorization of international military action. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Russia has been shipping defensive weapons to Syria to prevent outside military intervention, and in an interview published in The New York Times yesterday, the head of the Russian government's arms export agency Rosoboronexport said those shipments include advanced air defense systems.

"These mechanisms are really a good means of defense, a reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea,” Anatoly P. Isaykin, Rosoboronexport's general director, told the paper. “This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this."

That's a pretty clear indication that Russia won't allow a resolution like UNSC 1973, which authorized the NATO air campaign over Libya last year that helped drive Muammar Qaddafi out of power (and to his death), to go forward. Russia abstained from the Libya vote, but later said it felt betrayed after a promise to use force only to directly protect civilians expanded into a campaign to destroy Mr. Qaddafi's regime.

That leaves diplomacy over a deepening civil war that has been strongly colored by the sectarian cleavages of Syria. President Bashar al-Assad and the core of his regime are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while his opponents are mostly drawn from Syria's Sunni majority. Fury over a death toll that has topped 13,000 in more than a year of fighting leaves few in Syria in the mood for reconciliation. Further complicating matters is Saudi Arabian support for the rebels and their loosely organized fighting force, the Free Syrian Army. In recent months, the FSA has shown signs of being better armed, and deaths among Mr. Assad's military have been rising.

Mood's decision to suspend his 300-member unarmed observer mission makes good sense. Observers have come under stone-throwing attacks in a number of locations in recent weeks, and the war in Syria is chaotic, with forces of both sides in the field sometimes appearing to be outside of any central control. Assad loyalist militias, known as shabiha, are heavily armed and have been accused of carrying out massacres of civilians. Suicide bombings by supporters of the rebellion have been on the rise. That some of his own people could join the growing list of the dead in Syria was the driver of Mood's decision.

And, sadly, little has been lost by the suspension. Though special envoy Kofi Annan announced a cease-fire and a six-point plan to end the war in April, the fighting in Syria never cooled. A 300-member mission is paltry in a country of more than 30 million people, and it has struggled to bear witness to the worst of the fighting, let alone stop it. Mood said the suspension will be reviewed "on a daily basis."

"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men, women and children are being killed every day," Mood said in a statement released by the observer mission. Bassam Imadi, a member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group based in Turkey, told VOA: "I think it is also high time to announce that the mission has failed - even the whole initiative of Mr. Annan has failed.''

Syrian opposition groups say around 60 people have been killed by government forces in the past 24 hours, while the government announced a funeral for more than two dozen soldiers it says were killed by rebel fighters.

What does the war look like? This video roundup of damage to Syrian cities was posted on the Syrian observer mission's Youtube page a few days ago.

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