UN chief wants continued Syria presence: Diplomats

AFP, Saturday 11 Aug 2012

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is pushing for a UN presence in Syria after its observer mission there ends to support mediation efforts, diplomats said Saturday

In a letter to Security Council members, Ban suggested several options for maintaining an "effective and flexible presence," according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The mission mandate is set to expire August 19, after the council voted last month to extend it for a "final" 30 days.

At the time, the council agreed any further extensions would be considered only if there was "very specific and sustainable progress on the level of violence, which should subside substantially, and on the use of heavy weapons."

The mission -- which started out with 300 military observers and has been reduced by half -- was deployed in April to oversee a peace plan, which should have begun with a ceasefire that never took hold.
In mid-June, the observers suspended patrols as fighting intensified.

The Security Council is scheduled to debate the future of the UN mission on Thursday, but so far there is little consensus.

The United States, in particular, has been highly skeptical about prolonging the observers' mandate yet again. Russia meanwhile is calling for an extension, saying the observers must continue monitoring the military situation.

France's ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, who currently holds the council's rotating presidency, predicted several days ago that the observer mission would leave at the end of its mandate.

"I don't see a scenario, except changes on the ground, which would permit the continuation of the mission," he said.

Ban acknowledged in his letter that the conditions set for continuing the mission, including an end to violence, "have not materialized."

However, according to diplomats, Ban believes it is nevertheless necessary to maintain a UN presence "beyond humanitarian action," permitting the UN to stay informed about the situation on the ground and to help the UN-Arab League envoy in his role as mediator.

The UN and the Arab League are expected to nominate a new envoy in the coming days, after Kofi Annan resigned from the post earlier this month.

Diplomats at the UN say veteran Algerian diplomat, Lakhdar Brahimi, a former top League official, has been tipped but has not yet given his official response.

Arab foreign ministers will meet Sunday in Saudi Arabia to discuss the conflict in Syria and Annan's replacement.

The observer mission could be replaced by a "political liaison office, which would function to assist the new special envoy," noted one diplomat, who said the "current level of violence makes it difficult to maintain observer" patrols.

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