By Douglas Hamilton
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Four military transport planes flew over the Mediterranean into Beirut this week from bases in Brindisi and Prague, carrying the first hardware for a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Syria whose ultimate outcome is unforeseeable.
How and when the operation might end is a question the world body may have to grapple with for some time.
The planes' cargo of 10 4x4s in the white paintwork of the United Nations, familiar on former battlefields the world over, was destined for an unarmed contingent of 30 ceasefire monitors which will expand over the coming weeks to 300 observers.
From Beirut, it is a 90-minute drive over the mountains into Lebanon's green Bekaa Valley and on by road to Damascus, a name redolent of fiery Arab nationalism and now the prize in a revolution impossible to predict.
A glance at other U.N. forces still engaged in Middle East peacekeeping after many decades is a sobering reminder of how long the path of intervention may be.
It took the deaths of 10,000 or more in 13 months of bloody repression by President Bashar al-Assad of what started as street demonstrations and morphed into an armed revolt to put seven U.N. soldiers on the ground this week.
They are led, for now, by a Moroccan colonel who sees a mountain of expectations ahead: the mass of Assad's opponents think the U.N. is going to be on their side. But the mission is committed to strict neutrality.
Yet it could be the thin end of a U.N. wedge whose ultimate size, scope, resources and effectiveness will be determined by global diplomacy that in turn will be propelled by incalculable events in Syria and beyond in the months to come.
BEYOND RHETORIC AND HAND-WRINGING
The actors have changed in the 21st century, but the great power rivalry that drew the map of Syria some 90 years ago in the days of camel-mounted regiments is stepping in again to take a hand in the future of the Arab republic of 23 million.
Russia and China vetoed two Western- and Arab-inspired bids to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Assad.
They backed Syria's sovereign right to fight off what it calls a foreign-backed armed conspiracy against Assad, and not, as the Syrian opposition says, a legitimate Free Syrian Army of rebels who defected and took up arms to defend the people.
They still hold that position. But, impatient and perhaps embarrassed at the 46-year-old leader's ruthless armored thrusts into the cities of dissent and the video-recorded slaughter of civilians, they have now joined the United States, Britain and France to back a peace plan drawn up by Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general now acting as Syria envoy.
Dependent on Russian and Chinese support, Assad really had no choice but to go along, accepting a U.N. ceasefire and a monitoring mission that Annan hopes will put foreign soldiers on his territory in the coming weeks, with their own helicopters.
Its initial mandate is for the next three months.
IT HAS A NAME, AND NEEDS
It is the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, or UNSMIS, an operation comprising not only the proposed 300 military observers but also their logistical tail and support.
"They would be deployed incrementally over a period of weeks, in approximately 10 locations throughout Syria," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proposes.
He wants "a nimble presence that would constantly and rapidly observe, establish and assess the facts and conditions on the ground ... and engage all relevant parties".
It will also need "mission support personnel with a range of skills, including advisers with political, human rights, civil affairs, public information, public security, gender and other expertise", he says, and guarantees of unhindered movement in and out of Syria of all personnel, equipment and provisions.
Every detail that can reasonably be nailed down is nailed down, it seems, and Syria must consent to all of it.
An initial agreement signed in Damascus on Thursday set out the functions of the observers and the responsibilities of the Syrian government, Annan's spokesman said. But it was only one step towards a full protocol governing their operations.
And when it comes to actual implementation, the devil will be in the detail, analysts say.
Damascus, not keen to see a larger force, has already served notice that it thinks 250 monitors is the reasonable number, and staked out its claim that they should be supplied by "neutral" - many might call them "sympathetic" - countries, citing the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
As for being "nimble", Syria says the observers will have to coordinate every step with its security forces, for their own safety - an arrangement which past U.N. experience suggests could lead to an endless game of hide-and-seek.
The observers will include "ordnance experts" able to quickly determine if the Syrian army has violated the ceasefire by firing heavy weapons, such as the large caliber mortars that have been pounding the rebel Khalidiyah district of the city of Homs every day since the truce came into effect last Thursday.
But they have to be quickly on the scene. And they have to be able to talk to whomever they want, without fear or favor.
Ban's April 18 proposal, now awaiting Security Council approval, obliges Syria to "facilitate the expeditious and unhindered deployment of personnel" and "ensure its full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access".
"This ... will need to be supported by appropriate air transport assets to ensure mobility and capacity to react quickly to reported incidents," says the mission statement.
And in a diplomatically worded hint that this could mean a protracted negotiation with Assad, Ban says "consultations have taken place to explain these principles" to Syria.
Timor Goksel, former spokesman with the U.N. force - UNIFIL - that deployed in southern Lebanon in 1978 on an "interim" basis and is still there, 13,000-strong, 34 years later, notes Damascus has experience of two previous U.N. missions. It is "going to find different ways of making their life difficult".
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and the U.N. Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) in the Golan Heights have not had a happy relationship with Syria because it "always tried to place restrictions on their movements", Goksel said.
He noted that Ban's proposal says the Syrian authorities are to be responsible for the unarmed monitors' security. That gives them a golden opportunity, he argues, "to say 'Sorry you cannot go here today, it's not safe'. Or 'You go with us'".
Moroccan colonel Ahmed Himmiche's advance team has already been denied permission to go to Homs - for security reasons.
PRESSURE FOR INTERVENTION
The U.N. aim is to avert a slide to all-out civil war in a country splintered by religious, ethnic and tribal divisions. Syria sits astride faultlines in an unstable Middle East that is beset by rivalries between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, who court powerful allies among the international great powers.
Unlike Libya, Syria is not an isolated dictatorship with a pushover army. The West has no zeal for military intervention against a heavily armed force of 300,000 with plenty of Soviet-made armor, planes and anti-aircraft missiles.
But unending carnage on the world's TV screens can raise public disgust to a level where angry rhetoric and sanctions are no longer enough for Western governments. In Bosnia, starting from a small U.N. monitoring mission, popular pressure pushed democratic powers into "robust" humanitarian intervention involving 60,000 troops with tanks and warplanes.
"It's going to be incrementally more difficult to look at the Syrian conflict and not consider options for some form of intervention," says Eurasia Group analyst Ayham Kamel.
"But at this point we are still not at the stage where the U.S. and Western powers have the willingness or the ability to intervene in Syria on a broader scale."
This is a U.S. presidential election year, Kamel noted.
"We're in a stage where everyone is considering different options, because the initial strategy did not deliver on Assad stepping down. And the violence has just become more intense."
WHO FIRED THAT?
Annan's six-point plan rests on establishing a firm truce, an end to detentions, torture, executions, rebel ambushes and bomb attacks - a calm that can provide "conditions for a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition".
The plan does not call for Assad to step down.
But many observers believe "political dialogue" with Syria's opposition can only have one outcome: that Assad and his minority Alawite power structure, backed by Shi'ite Iran and detested by Syria's Sunni majority, are finished.
Instead, he might continue to play his hand with the world powers and the United Nations and hang on to power for years more, like the late Saddam Hussein did in Iraq -- no longer in full control of the whole territory but still holding Damascus.
For the present, the monitors due in Syria in the coming days face an immediate task of assessing conflicting reports of violations of the April 12 truce, and to oversee the withdrawal of all troops and heavy weapons "to their barracks" - a stipulation in the Annan plan that Assad may contest.
The analysts said the Syrians know the U.N. will send military observers with more expertise than the mixed civilian and military mission from the Arab League which left after a few unhappy weeks in January being harassed on all sides amid escalating violence across the country.
The U.N. teams will be able "to identify the source of fire, the types of weapons", former UNIFIL spokesman Goksel said. But the Syrian authorities, he added, "are going to do everything possible ... to prevent these guys from freedom of movement".
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans. Editing by Dominic Evans)