The appalling truth about the UN observers in Syria
Inside Arab Spring
Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo, where he represents the EU parliament's Alde group. He is the former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his blog is a window on events in the Arab world.
Today a UN diplomat told me the appalling truth about the UN Observation Mission in Syria. The facts are based on direct information from observers on the ground. It is clear that, while some observers are doing a great job risking their life and even pay missions on their own expenses, most of the official UN observers are doing as good as nothing at all, as they are underpaid, too scared and too few.
The 300 UN observers are in reality with 270. They were quickly picked from several UN institutions and departments. A great lot of them do not speak English and only a few speak Arabic, which makes communication with the local people as good as impossible. As they were picked very quickly, almost none of the observers have any knowledge about Syria at all. They are not trained and have no experience whatsoever with the situation there brought in. That’s why most of them are terribly scared.
The daily allowance the observers receive is ridiculously low, being 230 dollars. One room in the safe Damascene hotel they all stay in costs 150 dollars a day. The problem is that with the other 80 dollars, they not only have to eat but pay for what they need to do their job. This is of course far from sufficient. If they want to do a mission to one of the Syrian cities, they have to pay the driver, the gasoline and other expenses. That is why only hundred of the 270 observers are actually doing observation missions, paying the expenses out of their own pocket. The other 170 just stay in the hotel, probably reading their newspaper, go for a swim or at best take a little walk in the neighbourhood. From these hundred active observers, only very few go to ‘far away places’ like Aleppo, Idlib, Deir Ez-Zor, Dera or even Homs. Most of them choose to visit Hama, as this is not far and thus not expensive.
Those who go on mission are secured by the Mukhabarat, the Syrian security and intelligence service. They follow the UN cars (German courtesy) with their own black cars. These intelligence people lead them to safe places and warn them for unsafe ones (read: where killings are going on). Of course it is up to the observers to decide whether to continue or not. If the observers reach the ‘no-man’s-land’ between the government’s and FSA territory, the black cars stop. From there on the observers are left on their own. We have seen in many videos the moving scenes when UN cars enter a city or a village. The cars are immediately surrounded by hundreds of people desperate to tell their story. The most speaking images came from the university of Aleppo where brave observers where overwhelmed by hundreds of students trying to share their fears and hopes.
Unfortunately, it goes not always like that. A lot of observers are frightened to death and don’t get out of the car. They even don’t open their window. Instead, they drive as soon as possible back to Damascus. The incident on May 15 in the outskirts of Damascus, where a bomb exploded next to one of the three UN cars there, was most probably the result of observers not wanting to get out of the car, or even open a window and people becoming angry about that. However, getting out of the car and talking to people has a downside as well, because it brings these people in danger. Some observers have even seen that – while driving back – the people they have been talking to were being arrested by the Syrian intelligence.
The situation on the ground is of course very complex. And it is not easy to operate. In some Syrian cities the affiliation of people towards regime or opposition is very fragmented and differs from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. But it is obvious that in order to be a little effective the UN observation mission needs much more and much better qualified people. The observers on the ground say at least 3000. Recently, the UK proposed to go to 800 but that was refused by Russia.
So that’s where we are, in a catch 22. With a mission that is not only a joke; it is even counterproductive. In the UN headquarters in New York they all know the Annan peace plan is dead. The problem is they do not have an alternative, as was even admitted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. That is why they keep on talking and trying and exhausting adjectives in condemning the crimes of the Assad regime. In the meantime, killings and massacres continue in Syria. It is time the UN admits its current mission in Syria has painfully failed.