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UN Security Council Sends an Observer Team to Syria


Russian ambassador to the UN
Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN, told reporters recently that his country was the "first to endorse" the Kofi Annan peace plan in Syria. PAULO FILGUEIRAS/UN PHOTO

The Security Council passed a resolution on Saturday allowing a team of 30 unarmed military observers to enter Syria as soon as Sunday to monitor the cease-fire that has more or less been respected since Thursday. Up to 250 observers, drawn mostly from United Nations peacekeeping troops in the region, are to eventually make up the team to carry out the six-point peace plan in Syria brokered by Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy from the UN and the African Union.

The council must pass another resolution authorizing the larger UN mission, based on a proposal submitted by April 18 from the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

Saturday’s resolution, passed by all 15 council members, is not only the first binding UN document to address the 13-month conflict but also signifies stronger backing of the Annan peace plan.

The original text of the resolution had been sponsored by the United States with support from Colombia, Morocco and other Western powers. On Friday, however, Russia, which has been steadfastly protecting the interests of the Syrian government in the conflict, submitted another draft. The two were melded in the last 24 hours, avoiding a Russian veto. Russia and China have previously vetoed two council resolutions condemning the violence in Syria. The General Assembly passed a sweeping nonbinding resolution on Feb. 16.

The council resolution called on all parties in Syria to guarantee the safety of the supervising team as well as its freedom of movement and access, stressing that the main responsibility for doing so lies with Syrian officials.

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“The Security Council will be watching very carefully,” Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the UN, said after the vote.

In addition, the council reiterated its call to Syrian authorities to conform to international law and allow immediate access by humanitarian workers to assist Syrians around the country. It urged all parties, especially Syrian authorities, to cooperate fully with the UN and other groups to carry out the relief work.

By the UN’s count, 9,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the rebellion, which has pitted pro-democracy fighters against the government of Bashar al-Assad. The UN said that at least one million Syrians needed humanitarian help, particularly in cities where attacks have obliterated neighborhoods.

Besides the observer team, Annan’s peace plan entails starting a political dialogue between an interlocutor from the Syrian government and the rebels; ensuring humanitarian-aid access to the country (including a daily two-hour pause to carry out the work); releasing arbitrarily detained people; and allowing peaceful protests and freedom of association as well as freedom of movement by journalists.

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Assad on the way out?

Russia’s draft resolution took a vaguer approach in terms of couching Syria’s commitments into a binding resolution, thus avoiding “further steps by the council in case of noncompliance,” according to the Security Council Report, an independent publication. Issues like humanitarian access, human rights language, the Syrian government’s responsibilities and conditions for the observers varied. After much haggling, a combined version smoothed the way.

Throughout the conflict, Russia has zeroed in on the Syrian rebels, inferring that they were as equally responsible as the government for the thousands of civilian deaths, even though the rebels are not nearly as well armed and organized as the national army.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, held that stance as he spoke to reporters after a briefing by Annan last week, insisting that it is the rebels who must begin political talks and stop fighting. Russia’s long-awaited positive vote on a Security Council resolution suggests, experts say, that the country is finally admitting that Syria has gone too far.

“The possible change of heart has nothing to do with Western or Kofi Annan’s diplomacy or a new-found enthusiasm for Responsibility to Protect” – the international doctrine to prevent and end hostilities – “but rather the embarrassment arising from backing a dictator on the way out,” said Thomas G. Weiss, the director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York.

Additional resources

Security Council Vents Frustration Over Syria Crisis

General Assembly Condemns Syria in a Strong Vote

‘A Sad Day for the Council’


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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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