The United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was established by Security Council resolution 2043 of 21 April 2012 as part of the Joint Special Envoy’s six-point plan designed to end the escalating conflict. One of the key elements of the plan was to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective UN supervision mechanism.
The new Mission absorbed a small advance team of unarmed military observers dispatched by the Council to Syria a week earlier pending a decision on a wider peacekeeping supervision operation based on the Secretary-General’s assessment of the situation on the ground. UNSMIS, set up for an initial 90-day period, was to comprise of 300 unarmed military observers as well as an appropriate civilian component to monitor a cessation of armed violence “in all its forms by all parties” as well as the full implementation of the six-point proposal to end the conflict. [See Mandate for details.]
On 25 March 2012, the Syrian Government committed to a six-point plan proposed by United Nations/League of Arab States Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, which was endorsed by the Security Council .
This plan included provisions for immediate steps by the Syrian Government, and a cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilize the country. To this end, it required the Syrian government immediately to cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres and to begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.
It also required a range of other steps by the Syrian Government to alleviate the crisis, including humanitarian access, access to and release of detainees, access and freedom of movement for journalists, and freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully. The plan embodies the need for an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.
UNSMIS deployment and activities
With a record rapid deployment, UNSMIS was fully operational on 30 May. As at 30 June, UNSMIS had 278 military observers at its Damascus headquarters and eight team sites, in Aleppo, Damascus, Deir-ez-Zor, Hama, Homs, Idlib, Deraa and Tartus, and 121 civilian staff addressing political and civil affairs and human rights matters, administration and support at Mission headquarters, with mixed military-civilian teams at five of the sites.
UNSMIS operations focused in and around population centres, in relation to both military monitoring and civilian interactions. To consolidate the cessation of violence, saturated patrolling was conducted in those areas, together with visits to conflict-prone and incident-specific areas for fact-finding and tension defusing purposes. A system of transparent violation reporting was also put in place.
As civilian staff was deployed, mixed teams expanded their interactions and sought every opportunity to engage with the local population in Government and opposition areas, building a network of community contacts as well as national officials. Liaison and engagement at the local level were important instruments
towards the building of stability where signs of cooperation encouraged it.
UNSMIS monitoring and reporting activities were hampered, however, by several factors. Access to incident locations or conflict was, on multiple occasions, delayed as a result of security concerns or Government warnings or by opposition actors and groups of civilians. In addition, civilians in opposition-held areas claimed to have been subjected to retaliation by Government forces following UNSMIS visits, were critical of the lack of protection from the Mission and became hostile towards observers on several occasions. As living conditions deteriorated, popular expectations grew that the presence of the United Nations military observers would result in a cessation of violence and provide protection to civilians.. UNSMIS was active in taking advantage of public information opportunities to emphasize its continued commitment to the Syrian people, explain its limited role and contain expectations.
In the meantime, risks posed to the observers rose in tandem with the hostilities. By mid-June, the number of indirect incidents of firing in the vicinity of observers or team sites had mounted, and there were several incidents in which weapons fire had a direct impact on team sites. The frequency and gravity of encounters with hostile crowds increased, as illustrated by the 12 June incident outside Al-Haffah, in which UNSMIS vehicles were blocked and damaged by a crowd and then fired upon by unknown persons, during attempts by observers to reach the town.
UNSMIS suspends operations
From 16 April until early May, hostilities in Syria were characterized by low-intensity fighting and a general reduction in violence. The cessation of violence established under the six-point plan and the presence of UNSMIS seemed to have a dampening effect in the areas where observers were deployed. The Mission worked actively in support of all aspects of the plan, and the observers, by establishing facts, contributed to building the international consensus.
However the agreed cessation of violence held only briefly. The second week of May saw a return to unrestrained and increasing hostilities, which by mid-June had reached or even surpassed pre-12 April levels. Government forces appeared to be engaged in a major coordinated effort to reclaim urban centres hitherto under opposition control, increasingly directed at larger towns, using a combination of helicopters, armoured units, artillery, and infantry, supplemented by militia forces. The armed opposition also increased the tempo of their military operations in support of their goals. This was realized through increased attacks on government installations and senior military officers, and an increase in asymmetric actions including assassinations and use of Improvised Explosive Devices causing both Syrian military and civilian casualties.
The levels of violence ultimately rendered UNSMIS’ own mandate implementation activities untenable. On 15 June, the Mission suspended its normal operations in light of the violence, obstacles to monitoring access, and direct targeting of its personnel and assets. The situation was reviewed daily with the hope that operations could resume as soon as possible. In the meantime, UNSMIS observers remained in their locations and had limited engagement, aside from case-by-case humanitarian-related monitoring visits to medical and educational facilities. On the basis of further review, the Mission also decided to consolidate its team sites into four regional locations, namely, in Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor, Homs and Rif Damascus, maintaining a geographical presence across the country.
End of mission
On 6 July, the Secretary-General reported to the Security Council on the implementation of Security Council resolution 2043. In a report, he analyzed the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, reflected on the political efforts to resolve the crisis and described UNSMIS deployment and activities. The Secretary-General presented the Council with options for the future of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria which included: the withdrawal of UNSMIS; the expansion of military observation capacity or the addition of an armed protection element; maintaining the current size and posture and a shift to civilian functions and redeployment to Damascus, with or without additional field presence. He said that those proposals were neither exhaustive nor fully reflective of evolving conditions on the ground nor did they account for operational and political developments subsequent to the submission of that current report.
On 20 July, the Security Council extended UNSMIS for a final period of 30 days. According to resolution S/RES/2059, the Council would only consider further extensions to the mission ‘’in the event that the Secretary-General reports and the Security Council confirms the cessation of the use of heavy weapons and a reduction in the level of violence sufficient by all sides'' to allow the UNSMIS monitors to implement their mandate.
The two conditions set by the Council were not met. This was reported in a Secretary-General’s letter to the Security Council on 10 August, in which he also set forth his observations on the future work of the United Nations in Syria.
UNSMIS mandate came to an end at midnight on 19 August 2012.