The Security Council decided today to close down the UN observer mission in Syria, which I once predicted would be a “heroic failure”. But this isn’t quite the end of the UN political presence on the ground, as the BBC reports:
Although the 101 remaining military observers will leave Damascus over the next eight days, a civilian liaison office is due to remain and a new special envoy is expected to be appointed.
What can such a political mission achieve? Here’s a few historical analogies from a paper I wrote for USIP last year:
What happens if preventive diplomacy fails and decision makers choose to cross the Rubicon and unleash full-scale war? Counterintuitively, political missions may still have a role to play in this scenario, urging the parties to at least limit the level of violence and maintain some channels of communication during the fighting. As noted earlier in this report, UN missions currently play a role in trying to mitigate a number of ongoing conflicts, including those in Somalia and Afghanistan. The United Nations also has a long-standing presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which has continued to operate during crises such as Israel’s 2008–09 incursion into Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”). During that crisis, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with all sides—once Israel pulled back, UNSCO turned to facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. It is a conduit for communications with Hamas that other actors cannot undertake directly.
Political missions can thus play a useful functional role during active conflicts, although they are typically constrained by both security issues and a lack of political leverage. . . . A mission deployed during the early phase of a war can identify ways to mitigate the damage, but this ultimately depends on the combatants’ cooperation.
Syria’s combatants are unlikely to prove very cooperative.