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On A Mission: What The U.N. Faces In Syria


So, what's the situation facing the United Nations team on the ground in Syria this weekend? For more on the kinds of challenges that Norwegian Major General Robert Mood and his staff will face, we're joined by Peter Harling. Mr. Harling is Middle East project director with the International Crisis Group. He's in and out of Syria frequently, and he joins us by Skype from Cairo. Mr. Harling, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Let me put the hard central question first. Based on your experience, could the Syrian regime just be using talks as a tactic to buy time and continue to crush the resistance?

HARLING: Well, there's a serious chance it will, given its past practices. Right now, it feels vindicated. It's stronger today than at any given point over the past year. It feels that society is polarized, that the opposition is fragmenting. It feels that the international community is more hesitant than ever. So, I think it sees this United Nations mission as a sign of the international communities' indecisiveness and as a form of reengagement. A few weeks ago, the objective (unintelligible) was regime change. Today, it seems to be a plea for a cease-fire, some monitoring presence on the ground and an ill-defined political dialogue to support the reform process. So, the regime does see this, I think, very much as a diplomatic gimmick for the time being; something that doesn't threaten its existence at core and which, in fact, may provide some resources, as you said, in terms of playing for time.

SIMON: Well, let me put it this way: is the U.N. being played for fools?

HARLING: Well, I don't think so. I think it's an experienced team and they know the risks, but it's going to be a very difficult mind game, not least because of the levels of violence on the ground. So, I think that there is a temptation among Syrian dissidents abroad, some Arab players, to pull the plug on this mission, to use it simply to demonstrate that the regime is acting in (unintelligible) and then move on to more forceful options, and in particular a build up towards a military intervention. There is this idea that the only way to deal with this regime is militarily. So, that's very true of some strands of the Syrian opposition. It's very true of some Arab states, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And they see this mission as a distraction. They would like to get it out of the way, go back to more serious propositions.

SIMON: It sounds like you think this is an experienced team who knows exactly what they're getting into.

HARLING: Well, they've got considerable experience in other contexts around the world, but there is little expertise available on Syria when it comes to the power structure or Syrian society. And creating a configuration in which this process becomes extremely difficult to maintain, but all parties involved will make that effort because there is no clear alternative on the table at this stage.

SIMON: Mr. Harling, you make it sound as if the U.N. mission is mostly a kind of kabuki theater, except people continue to die.

HARLING: The tragic reality that people have been dying for nearly 15 months now. And also there is a compulsion to do something, visibly it's hard to find what. If this was an easy case, the international community by now would have come up with a workable solution. The problem is that this regime has a number of important allies - Hezbollah and Iran in particular. Syria sits in a very volatile and sensitive part of the world. So, there is this belief that moving in militarily to bring this to an end would in fact precipitate a civil war within Syria that could produce far more kills than what we've seen until now.

SIMON: Mr. Harling, we've been, you know, talking for a few minutes now and I think people will notice that it's hard to come up with specific things the U.N. team might likely achieve, even conversationally. Does that somehow mirror the difficulty of this mission and in a sense the difficulty of taking it seriously?

HARLING: Well, I mean, there are many reasons to be skeptical. But the only game in town for the time being is the Kofi Annan mission, which should be optimized, giving it, you know, the best possible chance of success to explore whether this is a workable avenue for at least the deescalating violence. This conflict is evolving constantly. It's not a stalemate. It's taking a very dangerous turn. And the Kofi Annan mission might just help in terms of reversing some of these trends.

SIMON: Peter Harling, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, in Cairo. Thanks very much.

HARLING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.