The head of the United Nations observer team in Syria, Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood is due in the capital Damascus Saturday, to give a fresh impetus to a mission which critics claim is fraying amid persistent violations of an over two-week old ceasefire. There have been reports of more clashes between government and opposition forces in several areas of the country.
A U.N. observer team visited the flashpoint city of Homs Saturday afternoon, just as the Norwegian general due to take charge of the mission headed to Damascus. Major General Robert Mood is a veteran of numerous U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Just over a dozen U.N. observers are now on the ground in Syria, despite efforts to boost the strength of the team to the 300-strong force approved by the U.N. Security Council. But Colonel Amed Himiche, a member of the observer team, said preparations are now complete in Syria for the arrival of the full 300 member observer team.
Clashes between government troops and rebel soldiers took place near the presidential palace in Latakia and the outskirts of Damascus, amid reports of fresh desertions to the rebel side. An activist told the French Press Agency that soldiers from a military base near the palace “deserted with their weapons.”
Syria's official state news agency SANA reported that a clash near Syria's commercial capital of Aleppo left three soldiers and two rebels dead. The agency also said that a loyalist military unit thwarted an attempt by armed rebels “trying to infiltrate from the sea” in Latakia.
In nearby Lebanon, the country's navy intercepted a ship off the coast that was reportedly carrying weapons from Libya to the Syrian rebels. The Liberian-flagged vessel was due to dock in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli.
The Syrian government has complained repeatedly that weapons were being smuggled from neighboring countries to help the rebels. The rebels, in turn, complain that Syrian allies Iran and Russia have been arming the government.
Scholar Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma, argues that both the government and the opposition are using the brokered ceasefire to rearm and regroup:
“The Annan peace plan is being used by both sides to regroup, rearm and reorganize. The Syrian regime is trying to convince the world that it's fighting terrorism and Islamists and the opposition needs a breather to get armed, organized, [and] try to knit together some communications network that will help them bring together their scattered groups and militias and recover from this offensive waged against them by the regime in the last few months," he said.
Landis was pessimistic about long term chances that the peace plan for Syria would work. "Both sides,” he said,”are raising the ante. Larger weapons are being used and we're seeing more carbombs, assassinations, and attacks on vehicles.” He also warned that a series of “tit-for-tat sectarian revenge attacks” is threatening a further “downward spiral.”
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.