Norwegian General Leads UN Observer Mission in Syria

UN-appointed Norwegian Major General Robert Mood talks to the media after his arrival at Damascus airport, April 29, 2012.
UN-appointed Norwegian Major General Robert Mood talks to the media after his arrival at Damascus airport, April 29, 2012.

Norwegian Major General Robert Mood is five days into one of the toughest jobs of his career. He is commanding a small, unarmed group of U.N. soldiers in Syria on a mission to rescue a truce deal that has failed to end the country's 14-month conflict.

The 54-year-old veteran of U.N. and NATO peacekeeping missions took command of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) last Sunday, putting himself in the spotlight as he tries to calm daily fighting between government and rebel forces.

General Mood was little known on the world stage before being appointed to the post by international peace envoy Kofi Annan last month. But, the Norwegian is no stranger to Syria.

Familiar face to Syrians

From 2009 to 2011, he traveled frequently in Syria while serving as chief of the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). Based in Jerusalem, UNTSO is the world body's oldest peacekeeping mission and has monitored cease-fires around the region.

Norwegian Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide has known the general for many years. Speaking to VOA by phone from Olso, Eide said Mood has a "long experience" of working with the Syrian government and military and officials of neighboring states.

"He has been following developments in the region and he knows it well," said Eide. "So I think he has a very good insight into the regional context, which as we know is a very complicated regional context."

General Mood led a small team to Syria in early April to discuss the terms of the U.N. observer mission with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Positive view of Syrian negotiators

In a briefing to the Norwegian media after his trip, he credited the Syrian officials and generals with whom he met as being "good" and "professional" negotiators.

Eide said General Mood's comments about Syrian authorities "should not be confused with any endorsement of their behavior."

Last month, General Mood also told several news organizations that he "fell in love" with Damascus during his UNTSO assignment and appreciated the "warmth" with which he was received in Syria.

Part of his role was to supervise the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) that maintains Syria's 1973 cease-fire with Israel in the Golan Heights region.

A welcome border presence

Hozan Ibrahim is a Germany-based member of Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council. Ibrahim told VOA that Syrians living near the boundary with Israel are "very welcoming" of UNDOF as it has helped to keep the area quiet since 1974.

Ibrahim also trusts General Mood's credentials. "As he is a Norwegian and a long-serving U.N. officer, [I think] the general could be neutral and you can depend on his reports," he said.

Robert Mood also developed his peacekeeping expertise on two missions to Kosovo between 1999 to 2002.

Experience as Kosovo peacekeeper

First, he served as a commander of the Norwegian Telemark Battalion that entered Kosovo in 1999 as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR. He later returned to Kosovo to join KFOR's leadership.

The Norwegian defense minister said he met with Robert Mood in Kosovo in 1999 and thought the general did a "very good job."

"I think he gained both field-level military experience and military-diplomatic experience from that mission in its most crucial years after the Kosovo war in 1999," Eide said.

Eide said General Mood's personality also makes him suitable to lead the new U.N. team in Syria. "He understands different perspectives and speaks with authority when he makes up his mind."

The general's prospects for success with UNSMIS are less clear, Eide acknowledged.

Can his U.N. misson succeed?

"The good news is that the parties in the Syrian conflict, the government and the rebels, have stated their intention to comply with the six points of Kofi Annan's peace plan. The bad news is that, so far, they are not in full compliance."

Norway has sent several troops to Syria to join General Mood's team. Eide said the mission is worthwhile because it can act as an impartial force, investigating government and rebel claims of truce violations by the other side, and reporting the facts to the world.

But, the Norwegian general has no mandate to use weapons or to force Syria's warring sides to comply.

Eide said such a truce mission only can succeed when the combatants have the political will to comply, or come under external pressure to do so.

"If the conclusion is that there is no compliance, then the conclusion has to be drawn at some stage that this is not a path to continue," he said.

General's team expands

Speaking to reporters in the central city of Homs on Thursday, General Mood said his team has grown to 50 members. Another 250 personnel authorized by the U.N. Security Council are due to arrive by the end of May.

SNC member Ibrahim said the 300-strong mission is too small to cover Syria's vast territory. He also said some observers only have been spending several minutes in an area before moving on - not long enough to see what is happening, in his view.

Ibrahim doubted the mission's effectiveness, but also said General Mood should be given a chance. "We want him to be successful to end the bloodshed of the last year," Ibrahim said.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin
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