International Order & Conflict

Syria: Looking Ahead to a U.N. Peacekeeping Operation

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By Kennan F. Hedrick – An international military force will almost certainly be needed in Syria to help provide security and protect civilians vulnerable to continuing sectarian violence, even if Syrian President Bashar Assad is forced out of power as a result of his nation’s 2-year-old civil war. A U.N. peace operation with a strong military presence will likely be called on to create this force, unless a multinational coalition takes up the task of providing security.

The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) continues to conduct contingency planning for possible peacekeeping or peace enforcement operations that could be authorized after the widespread fighting currently raging across Syria has ended. However, DPKO will have a hard time obtaining sufficient troops to serve in a post-Assad Syria.

Initial DPKO involvement in Syria came in April 2012, when it deployed 382 unarmed observers with the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). The mandate of the mission called for the observers to monitor and report on the cease-fire agreement negotiated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was then the U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria.

The significant international interest in reaching a political solution to end the fighting in Syria and the limited mandate of UNSMIS generated participation from 47 nations that contributed troops to the mission. However, most nations contributed only one or two people. Annan’s cease-fire efforts ultimately failed, and UNSMIS was withdrawn in August.

Developments in the Syrian conflict since the withdrawal of UNSMIS have raised the stakes for a potential U.N. peace operation. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy, attempted to negotiate a cease-fire for the Eid al-Adha holiday in October 2012. Speculation followed that the DPKO was considering a force of 3,000 troops to support the cease-fire.

After the Eid al-Adha cease-fire failed to materialize, reports speculated that the U.N. was considering a force of up to 10,000 peacekeepers for another mission in Syria. This speculation accompanied recognition from many international actors that the civil war had escalated past a point of peaceful resolution, and would likely result in the fall of Assad and a new phase of violence and instability.

Rather than a limited observe-and-report mission, a U.N. peace operation deployed after the fall of Assad might entail a much broader mandate and greater risks to peacekeepers. This shift creates several challenges to participation by other nations. Many countries may not be willing to tolerate a high level of risk to their peacekeepers in the likely violent and unstable environment of a post-Assad Syria.

A string of shootings and kidnappings targeting the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, which monitors the 1974 Yom Kippur War cease-fire between Israel and Syria, has already caused some nations contributing troops to reconsider their current participation in the region. Japan withdrew its contingent in December, and Austria and the Philippines reviewed their contributions in March following the three-day detention of Filipino peacekeepers by Syrian rebels.

A post-Assad Syria will likely pose significantly greater risks to peacekeepers than those currently faced by personnel along the Syrian border, and may discourage many nations from participating in a U.N. peace operation.

Closely related to the risk tolerance of nations considering contributing troops is their willingness to support a robust peace enforcement operation, which may be necessary to stabilize a post-Assad Syria, alongside vital U.N. services and civilian activities related to refugees, institution building, and political and economic recovery.

Faced with multiple political and military groups no longer united by their opposition to the regime, a post-Assad Syria may require a military presence willing and able to undertake activities rarely authorized or allowed by U.N. peace operations, such as counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and policing activities.

Due to the complexity of these operations, the lack of a clear exit strategy and the fact that such an operation might constitute a divergence from traditional peacekeeping doctrine, many nations may be reluctant to participate in such a mission.

Even if countries are willing to contribute, finding qualified troops would present another challenge. Troops from most nations lack the skills and training for complex counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.

Furthermore, the militaries of some countries could already be strained by contributions to the recently authorized U.N. stabilization operation in Mali. Troops from Middle Eastern countries, while possibly better trained and resourced for the Syria context, might undermine the credibility of a U.N. peace operation due to their home countries’ political and sectarian interests in the Syrian conflict.

As importantly, the U.N. secretariat lacks the doctrine, organization, training, planning, logistics, and command and control needed to undertake military operations in such an environment.

Despite facing similar challenges, the recently authorized intervention brigade for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo demonstrates the willingness of some nations to participate in riskier missions that push past the boundaries of traditional peacekeeping operations.

Whether other nations will volunteer contributions for a similar operation in Syria remains to be seen. Unless countries are willing to send in their men and women to strap on the blue helmets, a U.N. mission will never move beyond continuing debates at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Kennan F. Hedrick was an intern with the Future of Peace Operations program.


UN Photo/Neeraj Singh

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