x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Difficult task for UN's expanded mission in Syria

Damascus is already trying to cripple the new 300-strong UN observer mission. Its professionalism could save lives in the coming days, and help to determine future action.

On Saturday, the UN Security Council expanded the international observers mission in Syria to include 300 observers, up from 30. On the same day, the regime was reported to have killed 40 people, including a family from Deraa that was trying to flee to Jordan. In one instance, shown in a video, activists were shot at while trying to speak to the mission's advance team.

The UN mission needs to avoid the failures of the Arab League's attempt in January: there were not enough observers, the regime strictly controlled their movements and, in some cases, observers displayed a marked lack of professionalism. For this new mission, the UN Security Council has given observers three months to carry out the mission; this must not be a three-month grace period.

It is clear that Damascus has still not complied with the ceasefire plan, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged yesterday. The regime's soldiers and mechanised forces are still positioned in cities, and snipers are stationed on rooftops. Civilians say they have been attacked or arrested as soon as observers left an area. Journalists have not been given access - another condition of the ceasefire plan - so there are many areas of the country that are completely opaque to outside scrutiny.

The regime has refused to allow monitors to have their own aircraft, which would have enabled freedom of movement. With the restricted numbers of monitors, who will apparently be subject to regime control, there is a real chance of another failure.

Lacking an alternative, however, the mission must continue and the international community must keep up the pressure. A good example is an EU plan to impose new sanctions on materials that could be used in the repression. Just the fact that the Security Council has passed another resolution, a week after its first one (which was more than 13 months into the conflict), is a sign that the international community is serious - or at least more serious than it was before.

This initial batch of monitors, at least, has shown a higher degree of professionalism in the job. They were touring rebel-held towns yesterday and two set up a base in Homs. There seems little chance they will bring an end to the violence, but their presence could help, and even save lives.

If this mission fails, the UN mandate will still have consequences. The resolution on Saturday warned of "other measures" if the plan fails, although those measures were left deliberately hazy.

From reports yesterday, many Syrians are sceptical of the mission's success. The matter is settled for many: the regime will kill protesters until it wins or it is toppled. If that is true, the observers still have a mission.