Syria: A UN Observer Mission Like No Other

Six decades ago in May 1948, the United Nations established its first ever peacekeeping operation—UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) —which consisted of unarmed military observers deployed across the Middle East, in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. These observers have remained since to monitor ceasefires lines and supervise armistice agreements, but have also at times been used for rapid deployment in support of mission start-ups in other peacekeeping operations worldwide.

The prior presence of UNTSO in Syria would again prove valuable when in April the UN Security Council authorized the deployment of 300 unarmed military observers to Syria and agreed to establish the UN Support Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) for 90 days. UNTSO contributed infrastructure and logistical support (an office in Damascus and a camp in the Golan Heights), as well as some observers with prior knowledge of the region and of host country authorities with which they were liaising while carrying out their mandate–including the head of the observer mission Major General Robert Mood who had previously served as UNTSO head from January 2009 to January 2011.

Key Conclusions

The prior UNTSO presence, the high political stakes, and the fact that unarmed military observers are easier to deploy than contingents in larger multidimensional peacekeeping operations all contributed to a record-time deployment of about 250 observers over a one-month period. But while UNSMIS may have the looks and mandate (“to monitor a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties and to monitor and support the full implementation of the Envoy’s six-point proposal”) of a traditional observer mission, many of the challenges it faces in implementing this mandate are new:

• The conflict opposes the Syrian state to a multifaceted “Syrian opposition,” with no clear ceasefire line to observe, and combats taking place in urban areas;

• The fact that UN observers are being used to make the ceasefire stick rather than to observe a ceasefire that had already taken hold;

• Some of the acts of violence–such as bomb explosions–are not easily attributable to one side or the other without specialized investigative capacities;

• The presence of a “third element” –other than government forces and opposition–possibly Al Qaeda-affiliated spoilers, complicates the dynamics of the conflict and represents a direct threat to the UN observers;

• The limited consent to the UN presence by the Syrian host government—also a party to the conflict—is a serious limitation to its access and hence to its effectiveness (it is still opposing UN helicopters, for example).


First off, the very nature of the conflict makes it challenging for UN observers to carry out their mission. In the language of the UN Security Council resolution, the fighting pits the Syrian state against the “Syrian opposition.” The “Syrian opposition,” however, does not form a cohesive rebel force in control of a clearly delineated part of the country, and there is no clear ceasefire line to observe. Instead, it is broadly composed of army and police defectors and/or armed persons, as well as civilians protesting against the government. In addition, combat between government forces and the rebels largely takes place in various urban areas around the country, which makes it difficult and risky for UN observers to carry out their mission.

Second, it quickly became clear that the mission of UN observers deployed would be to make the ceasefire stick rather than to observe a ceasefire that had already taken hold. While the head of UNSMIS, General Robert Mood, had initially said that the presence of UN military observers on the ground had had an overall “calming effect” in their areas of deployment, later reports indicated that government forces had used reprisal violence against individuals that UN observers had met with and fired into crowds coming to greet UN observers in Deir al-Zor. While UN observers can and have reported on troop movements, use of heavy weapons, and military concentrations in and around population centers, it has proven difficult in some instances to attribute some of the acts of violence—such as bomb explosions – to one side or the other without specialized investigative capacities.

Further complicating the mission of the observers is the fact that what Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hervé Ladsous called “a third element” —something other than government forces and opposition—may now be operating in Syria. Should the presence of possibly Al Qaeda-affiliated spoilers be confirmed, this would not only complicate the dynamics of the conflict but also represent a direct threat to the UN observers themselves. Three roadside bomb explosions in proximity of UN observers’ convoys have already been reported over the last couple weeks, causing no UN casualties so far. But almost a decade after the August 2003 Canal Hotel Bombing in Baghdad—which led to the creation of the current UN Department for Safety and Security—the UN remains a soft target for terrorist attacks, and any UN casualty in Syria could bring the observer mission to a screeching halt.

Finally, the limited consent of the Syrian host government to the UN presence represents a serious limitation to the effectiveness of the observer mission. While the Syrian government did not object to the deployment of the observers, it has denied visas to some observers based on their nationalities, and still opposes that the UN flies its own helicopters. With no air asset and no protection force of its own, the UN observer will continue to rely heavily on the goodwill of the host authorities—also a party to the conflict—to guarantee the safety of UNSMIS personnel and its freedom of movement and access.

Arthur Boutellis is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute

About the photo: UN observer group makes rounds in Homs, Syria, April 2012. Photo credit: UN Photo/Neeraj Singh