Syria: can Arab League observers make a difference?

Observers from the Arab League are now in Syria to check whether the Assad regime fulfills its promise to pull the army out of urban areas.  Fifty observers have arrived, and there may eventually be up to 200.  This is not the first time the League has deployed a peace operation (it sent troops into Lebanon in the 1970s, as I noted in a piece for the National earlier this year) but it’s still a pretty unusual initiative.  The exact make-up of the observer mission is a bit of a mystery: it’s being led by a Sudanese general, but it’s been reported that it will include human rights experts and members of NGOs as well as security personnel.  The Syrians will take care of the observers’ security, or so they say.

Can this type of mission, which is only able to observe and report rather than directly protect civilians, make a difference?  Just before Christmas, the U.S. Institute of Peace published a paper by me entitled Political Missions and Preventive Diplomacy, which looks at what international missions can do to avert potential conflicts in periods of latent and escalating tension.  In Syria, the situation has shifted from “escalation” to the verge of civil war.  What can observers achieve at a moment like this?  In the paper, I highlight one precedent: the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM), deployed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1998. The mission observed but could not stop the violence that led to NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign:

In October 1998, the OSCE was mandated to deploy the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to oversee a cease-fire and supervise elections in the then Yugoslav province after a year of mounting violence. The request followed negotiations between Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke, but American-led talks were still ongoing. Both the Yugoslav security forces and Kosovo Albanian guerrillas continued to operate, and Yugoslav atrocities eventually made it impossible to continue talks. In these unpromising circumstances, the KVM was expected to deploy “2,000 unarmed verifiers.”

The operation stumbled along unhappily…

The KVM initially had a high level of access to Yugoslav military facilities, but its presence proved insufficient to halt continuing violence. The head of mission, U.S. diplomat William Walker, tried to involve the mission in human rights and political affairs. But its personnel tended to focus more narrowly on military matters, and less than a tenth of the verifiers were assigned to human rights duties. This is unsurprising given the instability of the situation. Concerns for the mission’s safety also resulted in the deployment of a NATO extraction force in neighboring FYROM. The mission’s detachment from the faltering diplomatic process meant that it never developed a clear sense of purpose [and it was] withdrawn from Kosovo in January 1999 prior to NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia. The KVM did, however, continue to assist refugees from Kosovo in FYROM for some months, both advising humanitarian agencies and compiling a record of human rights abuses that had taken place during the crisis. The KVM experience suggests that once a crisis has reached its peak, the presence of external monitors alone is unlikely to affect decision makers’ choices.

This precedent doesn’t exactly suggest that the Arab League observers can make a great impact on Syria – not least because they will have far fewer personnel to cover a significantly greater area, and there is no extraction force to help in a crisis.  Looking at the lessons from the KVM and other missions in my USIP report, I’d have three bits of advice to the League:

(1) Ensure that observers’ reports are full, clear and detailed – and get to the top levels of the League fast.  It’s all too easy to let reporting standards drop under pressure or for officials in the field to succumb to “happy reporting” (emphasizing positive aspects of cooperating with the authorities in an effort to sustain access).

(2) Maintain political pressure while the observers are at work.  It’s important that the Syrian authorities don’t exploit the presence of observers on their territory to slow down negotiations towards a lasting political settlement.  It would be very easy for Damascus to drag out negotiations by arguing over details of the observers’ mandate (by repeatedly blocking access to sensitive sites for example).  Arab diplomats must keep up political pressure for a lasting deal between the government and opposition, rather than hoping that the presence of the observers will restore calm.

(3) Have a credible exit strategy.  League officials must make it clear to Damascus that they will withdraw the observers if their freedom of movement is curtailed or their ability to report objectively is compromised.  The Syrian leaders should be aware that there will be strong penalties for failing to meet their commitments, and that the observers are only a temporary mechanism for confirming that they do so.   Having the observers in Syria is not an end in itself, and should never become one.