On April 21, 2012, I was appointed head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), a 300-member-strong United Nations observer mission tasked with implementing the first, and so far only, UN-backed ceasefire proposal in Syria. But my deployment was unarmed, had a weak mandate, followed passive rules of engagement, and operated within a political six-point plan that was challenging to translate to field realities without full commitment from all parties, including the UN Security Council.
In the end, UNSMIS was unable to fulfill the ambitious goals set for it. In an atmosphere of increasing violence, the mission suspended its activity in June 2012. On July 20, my tour in Syria came to an end, and a month later, UNSMIS was closed down. The UN’s attempt to organize a ceasefire had collapsed.
Kofi Annan’s Plan for a Ceasefire
The purpose of UNSMIS was to implement a plan proposed by Kofi Annan, who then served as a joint UN and Arab League envoy to Syria. The president of the Security Council formulated Kofi Annan’s six-point plan in a statement on March 21, 2012. The main elements of it were that the parties should:
(1) commit to work with Annan in an inclusive, Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people;
(2) commit to stop the fighting and urgently achieve an effective UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties;
(3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting; (4) intensify the pace and scale of the release of arbitrarily detained persons;
(5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country and a nondiscriminatory visa policy for journalists;
(6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.
The Security Council called upon the parties to implement this proposal fully and immediately, and the UN member states and secretariat made a commendable effort to establish the force during a few hectic days in April and May 2012.
Thanks to this strong initial backing, we were able to fully deploy and establish the mission in three weeks. Our headquarters were in Damascus, complemented by outstations in areas stretching from Deraa in the south to Aleppo in the north and Deir ez-Zor in the east.
Internal and International Conflict
Unfortunately, it soon turned out that we were the weakest player in the game. All actors involved had agreed to the six-point plan, but many apparently saw UNSMIS as a useful tool to serve their own narrative rather than as a way of implementing Annan’s six-point proposal.
The parties we met in Syria seemed to seek support and arguments through our presence and activities, and they sought to confirm the validity of their respective narratives rather than implement Annan’s proposal.
The main responsibility for the Syrian tragedy, of course, rests with those pulling the triggers or supporting and mentoring fighters, on all sides. But in the case of UNSMIS, the mission was also undermined by a lack of international support and flexibility.
Counterproductive Western Rhetoric
My understanding and experience from Syria was that the crisis could have been solved if the international community had offered the president and his government an honorable way forward during the summer of 2012. Saving face and honor were much more important ingredients than life or death for these key individuals. However, when political leaders in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France made harsh public statements condemning the actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in order to please their own voters, these public insults effectively closed relevant diplomatic and dialogue doors.
Every time leading Western politicians delivered a slap via the media, the positions of the ruling group hardened and our talks in Damascus moved backward. Implicit threats about intervention were received as insults, implying weakness that effectively hardened Syrian leaders’ positions. In official, as well as unofficial, discussions, we experienced their fear of exposing any sign of weakness. Standing up against international pressure was seen as demonstrating self-confidence and strength.
Hence, external pressure, implicit threats, and verbal condemnation probably escalated the level of violence, just as Annan was struggling to create political momentum. Rhetorical references to the Responsibility to Protect, the UN’s initiative to establish a human rights norm that permits international intervention to prevent mass atrocities, and to the International Criminal Court became self-defeating, since these approaches helped convince Assad and his closest aides that the international community at large—with a few exceptions, such as Russia and China—did not understand what was happening and did not intend to offer them either the respect they felt they deserved or an honorable way forward.
Costly Political Posturing
Today’s headline-and-election-driven political dynamics make it hard to address crises in states and regions that view historic events after the end of World War I as recent history. During my deployment in Syria, I observed up close how Western politics is about national interests, international rivalry, and the constituency at home rather than about the moral responsibility to effectively protect innocent civilians in harm’s way.
Setting redlines, like the threat to intervene if chemical weapons are used, may also be counterproductive. Seen from a village in Syria, through the eyes of suffering women and children, the message received was rather that the opposition and the government were free to continue the killing and destruction, as long as they refrained from using chemical weapons. When you are at the receiving end, it does not make a big difference whether you are being killed by artillery, tanks, missiles, air bombardment, or chemical weapons. Hence, the feeling of betrayal reported from inside Syria is now growing stronger and stronger, in particular when the threat to act proved to be hollow.
Time to Stop the Violence
Ending UNSMIS was, ultimately, the right thing to do. In Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995, the UN became part of the problem and stood by as a silent witness to atrocity. This time, the UN strengthened its integrity by avoiding such a development. A mandate that was impossible to implement on the ground, at least as long as the parties saw their interests best served by fighting it out rather than implementing Annan’s political solution, was not extended.
Nonetheless, we, the international community, have a universal obligation and responsibility to protect civilians. We have betrayed the civilians and children of Syria and violated this responsibility. We must find a way to shoulder our responsibility to stop the violence and facilitate the reconstruction of Syrian neighborhoods.
The time has come to stand with the Syrian people, for the moderate rebels and the government to reach out to each other and realize that they have both a viable common goal and a dangerous common enemy.
The common goal is their stated long-term aim of a secular state with equal rights for all, a well-developed education system, and high-quality healthcare services; their common enemy is the extremists that deliberately challenge the secular fabric of Syria and the equal rights of men and women. Through forgiveness and compassion on the scale of former South African president Nelson Mandela, the future of Syria’s children can still be saved.
The time has also come for the permanent five members of the UN Security Council to shoulder their responsibility and clearly tell respective sides that they are expected to stop the violence and start talking.
Robert Mood is a major general in the Norwegian Armed Forces. He was the head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria between April 21, 2012, and July 20, 2012.