The United Nations Security Council will not renew the mandate for the monitoring mission it set up in Syria this spring to supervise a peace plan that never materialized. The mandate for the UN Supervision Mission, called Unsmis, expires Aug. 19. The unarmed mission, renewed in July for 30 days, is down to 100 officers from 300, after it virtually stopped working in mid-June when fighting became too dangerous for it to operate.
In addition, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian and United Nations diplomat, will take over the UN-Arab League joint special envoy post for Syria held by Kofi Annan, who resigned early this month. The UN said that Brahimi will start working when Annan’s mandate ends on Aug. 31.
A letter from the Security Council to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meant to show unity on the appointment of Brahimi by expressing support for the “Mission of the joint special envoy to Syria.”
In the Syrian monitoring mission’s place is a new plan to set up a liaison office in Damascus, proposed in a letter to the Security Council by Ban, it was announced today, with few details. The office will be managed from the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, shifting the focus from the UN’s peacekeeping department, in the hopes of ending the 18-month conflict. The political affairs department has civilian offices scattered throughout the world, including one in Iraq, run by a German diplomat, Martin Kobler, to ease the country through its postwar transition. The UN department also has a new chief, Jeffrey Feltman, an American with extensive experience in the Middle East.
In his letter, Ban acknowledged that conditions to continue the Syrian mission had not been met, but that the UN will stay in the country in some form despite the escalation in fighting.
Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN and president of the Security Council this month, said after the council’s private meeting this morning to discuss the mission’s future that the council agreed to the secretary-general’s plan to opening an office in Damascus. The council also agreed that the monitoring mission was dead.
“The mandate is over,” Araud said, speaking briefly to the UN press corps. “Yes, Unsmis will fade out.” By consenting to Ban’s idea for a civilian operation with some military advisers, he said, the council sends “a message,” that all 15 members “approve the idea of a liaison office.”
Brahimi’s appointment was reported last week in major media without UN confirmation, but he was said to be reluctant to become special envoy because of the fractured state of the Security Council over Syria. The council’s full agreement to a liaison office signals more unity in its ranks.
Annan, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with the UN in 2001, quit the envoy job because of intransigence by the Syrian government, the Syrian rebels and the Security Council, he said, preventing a cease-fire. China and Russia have vetoed three draft resolutions supporting Annan’s peace plan to end the long conflict in which 17,000 people have been killed.
Brahimi, 78, retired from the UN in 2005. During his long tenure at the world body, he was a special envoy in such bloody spots as Iraq after the United States invasion, and in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and from 1996 to 1998. He was also dispatched to South Africa as it shed apartheid and to Cyprus, Haiti and Sudan. He was Algeria’s foreign minister from 1991 to 1993 and helped broker the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1989, working for the Arab League.
At the UN, Brahimi often disagreed with American policies in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, as far back as the Bill Clinton presidency, earning a reputation as a tough diplomat. In 2010, he said that as a diplomat striving to solve conflicts, he learned that frustration was intrinsic to forging peace, noting that “800 days of frustration for 1 day of satisfaction” was worth the experience.
His native language is Arabic, but he also speaks English and French. He is a member of the Elders, a highly select group of retired diplomats and national leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The group also includes Annan and Martti Ahtisaari, an ex-UN diplomat who also won a Nobel Peace Prize and was president of Finland. Ahtisaari’s name was rumored as a possible replacement for Annan as well.
The Syrian crisis has reached fever pitch as fighting with heavy weapons, mainly by the government, is killing more people, including those in hospitals and defenseless civilians; important government defections have exposed President Bashar al-Assad’s vulnerability; the Security Council’s polarization may be softening; the United States is preparing new sanctions against Syria; and the humanitarian side of the conflict has generated all-time highs in terms of numbers of refugees, internally displaced people and fatalities.
At least two million face major deprivations like hunger, lack of sanitation and medical care in Syria, and Valerie Amos, the under secretary-general for the UN’s humanitarian office, who is visiting the country, said that the government and donors needed to pump more aid in immediately.
“There is more we could be doing right now in areas that are safe enough and where we have established solid partnerships” with nongovernmental offices and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Amos said.
In addition, a new report by a UN independent panel tasked with investigation human-rights abuses in Syria said that both the government and the rebels have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The highest levels of government, the military and hired gangs, or shabiha, it said, were involved in murders, tortures and extrajudicial killings, among other atrocities. Rebels are also accused of murders and tortures but not of the same scale, frequency or gravity of those enacted by the government.
The report will be presented formally to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept. 17.
[This article was updated on Aug. 17.]