Arab monitors were unprepared for Syria, report shows

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2012 

CAIRO — The Arab League's mission to monitor the bloodshed in Syria was doomed from the start, with some observers seemingly oblivious to the gravity of their assignment and others lacking the expertise to do the job, according to a leaked internal report.

The Arab observers also faced serious dangers, a scarcity of equipment and a fierce Syrian media campaign against them, obstacles that all but assured their inability to get a deep understanding of the crisis that's on track to becoming the Middle East's next civil war. The mission was suspended Saturday amid escalating violence.

Arab foreign ministers are studying the internal document, which first appeared Tuesday on the website of Foreign Policy magazine. Its authenticity couldn't be independently verified, but no officials had publicly disputed it.

"Regrettably, some observers thought that their visit to Syria was for pleasure," wrote the mission chief, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al Dabi, according to the report posted online. "In some instances, experts who were nominated were not qualified for the job, did not have prior experience and were not able to shoulder the responsibility."

The Arab League had styled its observer mission as a bold move that ran counter to the group's reputation as ineffectual and toothless. Embarrassed by the team's widely acknowledged failure, Arab League leaders now are focused on pushing their peace plan before the U.N. Security Council.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the foreign ministers of Britain and France, and Arab allies appeared at the United Nations on Tuesday to back a draft resolution that calls for Assad to resign within two months, an end to the violence and beginning a process of political transition. It also calls for the release of detained protesters and for Syria to allow outside observers into the country.

The Obama administration and the Arab League were hoping for a speedy approval of the resolution, with a vote expected within days, but they've encountered stiff resistance from Russia and China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.

Russian officials have vowed to block the Arab plan, saying they wouldn't support what amounted to a regime-change campaign. The United States leads a chorus of Western powers calling for Assad's immediate ouster, and Turkey and Arab countries have demanded the same.

Russia, China and Iran are among the few remaining nations that back the isolated Syrian president, Bashar Assad.

Russia is eager for members of the Security Council to read the Arab League's 18-page findings, according to the Foreign Policy report, because it contains one part that urges Arab countries not to hand over their mediating role to the international community. Western diplomats argue that the recommendation went beyond the team's mandate, and they don't want the document presented.

Syrian activists, meanwhile, said they were working hard to turn up the pressure on Russia to fall in line with the international community and support the protesters' 10-month-old uprising.

"We expected that when the Arab League submitted their plan to the U.N., they would confront the Russians, who are the main obstacles to overthrowing the Syrian regime," said Diaa al Deen Doghmosh, an opposition activist who fled Syria for Egypt four months ago. "Not all of us agree on the Arab plan, but we accept it generally in hopes that Russia will, too."

The observer mission might have crumbled, they say, but at least the Arab presence allowed more news reporting and more independently recorded scenes of the violence. In December, the U.N. said Assad's forces had killed 5,000 people since the uprising began, a figure it hasn't been able to update because of the hostilities. Activists groups say hundreds more have died since.

Because of the Syrian government's strict media restrictions, most documentation of the violence comes from amateur video uploaded to the Internet. It's impossible to authenticate, and it's led to hoaxes and many disputed scenes.

"Let me be clear: We weren't expecting (the observer mission) to be very successful," Doghmosh said. "But we thought, 'If you want to see it, if you aren't convinced with all these videos and want to send monitors, then go.' "

The mission's problems began upon its arrival in Syria on Dec. 24. Syrian officials immediately confiscated the communications gear of the 166 monitors at the Jordanian border, according to the leaked report. They were left with just 10 satellite phones until the Chinese Embassy intervened with 10 walkie-talkies to help the monitors communicate with one another and their command.

The observers were posted in 15 areas of the country, some of them dangerous conflict zones, but they didn't have enough body armor or reinforced vehicles. Rental agencies refused to rent vehicles to the monitors, who sometimes ended up overwhelmed among rioting crowds in the mission's first days, according to the report.

Dabi, the mission chief, recommended reinforcements should the monitors extend their work: 100 more observers — preferably "young with military background" — 30 armored vehicles, body armor and night-vision binoculars.

"The government put in place a tight strategy to limit access to the core areas, and keeping the mission occupied with issues of concern to the government," the report reads. "The mission resisted this approach."

The monitors also appeared unprepared for the scope of the armed anti-regime opposition, anchored by the Free Syrian Army rebel group, which staged several bold attacks on security forces during the Arab delegation's visit.

Dabi wrote that the observers' mandate didn't cover how to address such matters as the opposition using thermal bombs and armor-piercing missiles in the flash-point cities of Homs and Daraa, according to Foreign Policy's account.

"The mission was witness to acts of violence against government forces and citizens, leading to death and injury of many," Dabi wrote. "A case in point was the attack against a civilian bus which killed eight persons and injured others, including women and children."

(McClatchy special correspondent Omnia Al Desoukie contributed to this report from Cairo.)

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