Can the UN monitor Syria effectively?

Briefing the General Assembly today, Kofi Annan noted that UN officials are now in Syria to plan a new ceasefire monitoring mission – one element of Annan’s peace plan.  Here is what he had to say about the mission:

As we prepare for such a mission, we need to keep the unique character of the Syrian crisis in mind. The violence in Syria cannot be addressed through the means of a traditional observer mission interposed between two armies. The situation is fluid. There is no established frontline. Peace will not be consolidated without a credible political process.  What we would need on the ground is a small and nimble United Nations presence. It would need to be deployed quickly with a broad and flexible mandate. Its freedom of movement throughout the country and security must be assured. It should engage all relevant parties. It should constantly and rapidly observe, establish and assess facts and conditions on the ground in an objective manner.

This assessment strikes me as sound.  Last week, I jotted down six criteria for a successful monitoring mission in Syria – Colum Lynch was kind enough to publish them on his blog over at FP:

1. Freedom of movement: The Arab League observer mission was under constant supervision by Syrian security personnel, and could not travel to trouble-spots without their minders. To have even minimal credibility, the U.N. mission would need to be able to make monitoring visits on their own initiative. The team would need their own vehicles (probably armored 4x4s) and independent close-protection officers. The Syrian authorities will argue that the observers should notify them in advance of trips for safety’s sake. Nonetheless, the U.N, should insist on the right on to make spot-checks with 2-3 hours notice at most.

2. A secure HQ and communications: The Arab observers were headquartered in a hotel, and had use Syrian communications systems to contact the Arab League in Cairo, inevitably compromising their reporting. A credible U.N. mission would need an independent base — off-limits to Syrian authorities — and the ability to send encrypted communications to New York. A neutral government such as Switzerland could provide military communications experts to support the mission. It might not take long for the Syrians (with Russian and Iranian help) to crack the codes, but this would at least signal the observers’ autonomy.

3. Access to Syrian artillery and armor: The use of big guns and tanks against civilians has been a defining dimension of the conflict. While the Arab observers were meant to oversee the removal of heavy weapons from urban areas, the Syrian Army only made cosmetic withdrawals. Annan and the Security Council have now called for the “end the use of heavy weapons in population centers, and [to] begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers.” U.N. monitors would need to prioritize tracking artillery and armored units, possibly even embedding personnel in their bases away from cities.

4. Satellites and drones: Heavy weapons can also be tracked by drones and satellites — which the United States has done already — and the observer mission should make use of these sources. Damascus will object to the U.N. turning to the United States for aerial or satellite intelligence, but the U.N. can get imagery from other sources and has its own satellite imagery analysts. The EU also has a satellite center that could be put at the U.N.’s disposal, and Belgium has a small fleet of drones that it has previously deployed in European peace operations.

5. Special investigators: While “observing” and “monitoring” sound like passive activities, the U.N. could also deploy investigative teams to gain more detailed information on specific incidents — including bombings and raids by rebel forces. While it’s very hard to gather reliable evidence in war zones, small teams of forensic and ballistics specialists may be able to piece together basic facts on new massacres. Although not much of a deterrent in the short term, the presence of these teams may make it possible to hold killers from both sides accountable later, as drawn-out prosecutions in the Balkans have shown.

6. An emergency exit strategy: However effectively the U.N. monitors might perform, there will still be a risk that the situation in Syria will deteriorate again — and either the government or opposition could try to seize some observers as hostages. There will need to be a military plan to get the monitors out at short notice. Russia, with its base at Tartus, is best-placed to arrange such a plan and could offer to do so as a sign of goodwill towards Kofi Annan. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon and the Turkish armed forces — and possibly Britain, which has forces stationed nearby in Cyprus — could lend a helping hand.

Will the forthcoming UN mission meet these criteria?  My suspicion is that it will have limited freedom of movement (getting around Syrian obstacles and objections will be a daily nightmare) and get some access to Syrian armored units and probably have the necessary communications kit.  Drones and satellites are unlikely.  Adding special investigators – or even a just a simple human rights component to track abuses – to military monitor should be a priority, as these experts can dig into cases of torture and targeted killings.  But, frankly, a heavily-armed extraction mission is a bit fantastical…