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UN ends observer mission in Syria, but isn't giving up

A small civilian office will replace the observer mission, and former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi has reportedly agreed to replace Kofi Annan as Syria envoy.

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UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmund Mullet answers reporters' questions at the United Nations after a closed meeting of the Security Council, Thursday, Aug. 16. The Security Council will let the mandate for the UN observer mission in Syria expire Sunday and will back a new civilian office there to support UN and Arab League efforts to end the country's 18-month conflict.

Richard Drew/AP

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It came as no surprise Thursday when the United Nations Security Council formally ended the UN’s observer mission in Syria – and its action further confirmed the absence of any effective international role in the Syrian conflict.

Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon now acknowledges that Syria is engulfed in a full-blown civil war. And world and regional powers themselves remain divided over Syria: with Iran, Russia, and China on the side of embattled President Bashar al-Assad; and the United States and other Western nations joining Turkey and Sunni Arab countries on the side of the rebels.

Still, that division is not stopping the international community from attempting to find some means of influencing a conflict that appears more dangerous for regional peace and stability every day – as recent signs of a spillover effect into neighboring Lebanon suggest.

The Security Council decided a small civilian office will replace the observer mission of about 100 military personnel, with the objective of maintaining political contacts on the ground. Also, according to Reuters, former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi has agreed to replace Kofi Annan as Syria envoy, albeit with a reconfigured mandate.

The UN’s attempts to remain involved have been complicated by Mr. Assad’s view that international forces are largely arrayed against him. That perception was no doubt reinforced by two separate actions taken by international organizations Wednesday.

A special UN commission set up to investigate human rights violations in Syria found that the government and government-sponsored militias have committed “crimes against humanity” in their repression of the population and antigovernment forces. UN human rights officials have accused the Assad regime of committing war crimes including murder, torture, and sexual violence, but the finding of “crimes against humanity” paves the way for Syrian officials to be tried in the International Criminal Court.

The special commission also found the rebels have committed criminal violence, though to a lesser degree than government forces.

Furthermore on Wednesday, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) voted to suspend Syria from the group – a move the US lauded as a reprimand of Assad and a sign of Syria’s mounting isolation. Iran on the other hand criticized the suspension as “unfair,” saying the better solution would have been to encourage talks between the government and the opposition.

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The OIC’s action underscored the growing rift that the Syrian conflict is fueling between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Assad hails from a small Shiite sect, the Alawites, while the opposition fighting him is largely Sunni.

That rift was apparent Wednesday when a Lebanese Shiite militia reported taking a group of more than three dozen Syrians (and at least one Turk) hostage, in retribution for a mass kidnapping of Lebanese in Syria by Syrian rebels.

Masked Lebanese militiamen appeared in the Lebanese capital of Beirut Wednesday to claim the hostage taking and to warn that they would begin targeting foreigners in Lebanon from Turkey and from Sunni Arab, pro-Syrian-rebel countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The Security Council’s pullback from Syria occurred as the UN’s humanitarian and relief affairs chief wound up a three-day mission, concluding that the humanitarian situation in Syria had gravely deteriorated since her last visit in March.

Valerie Amos said that more than 1 million Syrians have been displaced “and face destitution,” while perhaps 2.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. She said she is particularly concerned that schools are increasingly being turned into shelters for the uprooted – when the buildings should be in the middle of preparation for the school year that commences in September.

Despite Syria’s intensifying civil war, UN Secretary-General Ban is still expected to formally name a Syria envoy to replace Mr. Annan, who steps down at the end of the month. The former UN secretary-general threw in the towel earlier in August after concluding that the international community was too divided to allow him to play an effective role.

Rumors circulated and then waned over the prospects for a Scandinavian diplomat to take the job. Mr. Brahimi, who hesitated for days, has been said to be interested in the post only if he has assurances of full international backing.

The French ambassador to the UN, Gérard Araud, told reporters at the UN Wednesday that he understood why it was taking awhile to replace Annan, since the envoy would be taking on an “impossible mission.”

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