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September 25, 2017

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Analysts aren't holding their breath on UN's Syria mission

BEIRUT -- The U.N. mission to Syria is seen as a last chance for diplomacy to end the bloodshed in the strife-torn country, experts say, while expressing skepticism about its chances of success.

"The international community continues to press this mission forward, particularly the Russians and the Chinese, because it's ... something they can all agree on," said analyst Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

But he said there were widely differing expectations as to the chances of the U.N. cease-fire mission resolving a 13-month conflict the United Nations says has left more than 9,000 people dead.

"Among the key Arab and Western nations, there is a strong sense that, even if it fails, the mission is a necessary step," Shaikh told AFP. "On the Russian side, whether it's genuine or not, they believe that this is the best hope of establishing a U.N. fact on the ground and kind of stabilizing the situation."

While admitting that the ceasefire plan that went into effect April 12 is fraught with difficulties, peace envoy Kofi Annan has said the U.N. Security Council vote to deploy 300 observers marks a "pivotal" moment for the stabilization of the country.

Critics, however, including activists on the ground, say the U.N. resolution simply allows the regime of Bashar al-Assad to buy more time.

They point to the fact that despite the presence of an advance team of U.N. observers in Syria, the violence has continued unabated, with nearly 300 people dying in the past two weeks.

"What this mission is doing is buying time for Assad to continue to do what he's been doing," said Shaikh. "The death toll on a daily basis falls within what are still being considered acceptable parameters set by the international community.

"No one has yet the courage to come out and clearly say that there is no ceasefire. The situation is continuing to worsen; it's not getting any better."

But other experts say that even though the U.N. efforts may amount to a mission impossible, there was no clear alternative for now considering the lack of a political solution.

"This is the only game in town given the absence of any other clear and acceptable solution for the time being," said Peter Harling, an expert on Syria with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"The stated objectives of this mission are to resolve the conflict but realistically they are more modest," he said.

"The idea is to defuse a conflict that was becoming more and more militarized and ... to create conditions for a political solution."

The six-point plan drawn up by Annan notably calls on government forces to withdraw their tanks and weapons from Syrian cities, for the release of thousands arbitrarily detained in relation to the anti-regime uprising and for all parties to respect the ceasefire.

The 300 UN observers set to deploy across the country to monitor the truce are expected in the country in coming weeks for an initial 90-day period.

Whether their mandate is extended will be up to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.

Experts said the mission was extraordinary as it marked the first time peacekeepers are sent unarmed into such a conflict zone where violence is ongoing.

Timor Goksel, a former spokesman and senior advisor for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, said he expects the Syrians to roll out the red carpet for the observers while at the same time failing to fully cooperate.

"The Syrians have a big experience with the U.N. because since 1974 they have had two U.N. observer missions in the Golan Heights," Goksel said. "So they know how to deal with them.

"The government will be nice and friendly to the U.N. guys ... but they will do everything possible not to allow these observers free movement," he added.

"The sad story is that the U.N. mission will be blamed for everything that goes wrong in Syria."

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