x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Assad buoyed by slow pace of monitors' arrival

The slow pace of deploying UN monitors to Syria is emboldening President Bashar Al Assad, and sends the message that the international community is less than committed to ending the violence.

More than two weeks after the UN Security Council authorised 300 observers to monitor a peace plan in Syria - a mandate that expires in late July - fewer than 40 observers are on the ground. And as the world dithers, the Assad regime keeps killing.

By themselves even a full contingent of monitors could not produce lasting peace (a fact acknowledged by some observers after they arrived in Damascus). But the slow pace of deployment allows the regime to manipulate the observers, and discourages the opposition from engaging with the process. It also sends the message that the international community is less than 100 per cent committed to ending the violence.

Yesterday, observers reportedly spent no more than 10 minutes speaking to residents in the city of Zabadani, outside Damascus, which was once controlled by the Free Syrian Army. In Deraa province, regime forces reportedly resumed violence after the observers left the town of Dael. Shelling and arrests continue; eight people were reportedly killed in Homs.

According to Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for Syria's foreign ministry, the number of observers will "triple" by Thursday (the UN says it will hit 225 by May 14). Yet no clear explanation has been provided for the delays so far. The UN does not have a standing military and relies on member states to provide observers. But the slowness might also be because Damascus is refusing observers from certain nationalities. While UN officials deny this is the case, Bouthaina Shabaan, an advisor to President Bashar Al Assad, has said Syria reserves the right to reject observers on nationality.

Whatever the reason, the slow deployment clearly shows a lack of engagement by the international community. Observers were never meant to be a solution to this crisis. Rather, they are a first step towards finding a solution.

Ultimately, UN efforts must build on the economic and political pressure already applied. For that, Russia and China will need to be brought on board. But urging Moscow and Beijing to do more to pressure the Assad regime will be pointless if Syria's allies see a less-than-energised international effort. And so far, that's what the UN has delivered.

When the UN authorised the mission in April, many predicted it would be manipulated by the Syrian regime (which had similar experience with the previous round of Arab League observers). Yet few could have expected Mr Al Assad would barely have to work to make the mission a disappointment .