x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Damning report on 'amateurish and under-resourced' observers in Syria

General who led monitors says some were elderly, infirm and unqualified, and others thought they were on a pleasure trip.

DAMASCUS // The Arab League observers in Syria were amateurish and under-resourced, and struggled to make sense of the situation they faced, according to a damning report on the mission by the man who led it.

The Sudanese general Mohammed Al Dabi says some monitors were too elderly or infirm to carry out their work, others were unqualified or unable to "shoulder the responsibility" and 22 quit.

Gen Al Dabi notes that "some observers thought their visit to Syria was for pleasure" and that they bickered over hotel rooms and cars.

At least 100 more observers, preferably "young and with military background" are needed to augment those deployed, the report says, together with armoured jeeps, bulletproof vests and modern communication equipment.

A batch of satellite phones intended for the observers was confiscated by the Syrian authorities on the Jordanian border, despite the protests of mission officials, the report says. Teams relied for communications on a few remaining satellite phones, unreliable mobiles and a handful of walkie-talkies donated by the Chinese embassy in Damascus.

The 18-page document, obtained by Foreign Policy, a US magazine, is apparently an English-language version of the monitor's findings, produced after their first month in the country and written by Mustafa Al Dabi, the mission's chief.

Given the significance of the report, which was supposed to determine the level of Syrian cooperation with an Arab League peace plan, it contains a number of confusing contradictions.

At one point it praises the Syrian government for playing a positive role, and says the authorities had placed no restrictions on movement and had helped to "alleviate any obstacles" facing the observers.

However, it also says that despite promises of full cooperation "the government put in place a tight strategy to limit access to the core areas, and keeping the mission occupied with issues of concern to the government".

The document, which covers the period 24 December to 18 Jan, is similarly unclear about how easily the monitors were able to work. It talks about their deployment going "smoothly" but then, later on, refers to the teams being assaulted by pro-regime mobs in Latakia to such a degree that an armoured jeep is "destroyed" and two of the observers injured.

But on the issue of army deployments in urban areas, it is unequivocal, stating that monitors were able to "conclude with certainty that all military vehicles, tanks and heavy weaponry were withdrawn from cities and residential quarters".

It praises the Syrian minister of defence for offering to travel with observers and order back any units they felt were breaking the terms of the Arab League deal.

Protesters insist the observers were duped by the authorities, who had moved tanks a few streets away and not sent them back to their bases.

A few days after the report was presented to the Arab League last month, the monitoring mission was suspended over increased violence and the league called on the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, to stand down saying he had not implemented the peace deal.

That move shocked Syrian officials, and their ally Russia, who insisted nothing in Gen Al Dabi's report justified such a step.

The leaked document places a heavy emphasis on armed insurgents, and says rebels used "thermal bombs and anti-armour missiles".

It refers to the mission being able to "witness acts of violence against government forces and citizens" and states government forces resorted to violence "as a reaction to attacks".

Insurgents were also probably to blame for the death of a French journalist in Homs, the report says.

The presence of opposition "armed elements" had not been taken into fair account by the Arab League protocol overseeing the mission, the report says, although it noted these militants had "undoubtedly" arisen as a "direct result of the Syrian government's forces excessive use of force" during the opening months of the crisis.

Calling for the mission to be given more time, in addition to greater resources, Gen Al Dabi refers to "positive results - if incomplete". He says protesters welcomed the observers' presence and suggested that the

Syrian authorities had gone some way to implementing the Arab League deal.

Under the terms of that agreement, Damascus was required to pull back military units from urban areas, halt the use of deadly violence, free all political prisoners and begin talks with the opposition.

According to the report, the Syrian government had released 5,252 prisoners - fewer than the 7,604 officials claimed to have freed.

psands@thenational.ae