U.N. diplomats say Syria's increasing violence is forcing them to consider an early end to the country's U.N. observer mission, which suspended patrols on Saturday to keep its unarmed staff out of danger. Officials and experts say the 47 nations making up the mission also have different positions on who decides when the troops will leave Syria and whether a pullout is justified.
The almost 300 U.N. military observers in Syria have a mandate that lasts until July 20, but escalating battles between government and rebel forces mean the operation may end sooner.
The U.N. Security Council launched the 90-day mission in April and must decide in the coming weeks whether to cancel it or authorize and fund an extension. But, the 47 nations that contributed troops could withdraw them even before the Security Council acts.
Pre-empting the Security Council
Cameron Ross is a retired Canadian general who commanded the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights, or UNDOF, from 1998 to 2000. Speaking by phone from British Columbia, he said nations that provided troops for the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) have the right to remove them at any time and for any reason.
"The situation on the ground changes and the contributing countries say, 'Hey, we didn't sign up for that, our soldiers are in too much danger.' Or there may be some political problems back home, the electorate is not supporting this, and they pull their troops out. This happens fairly regularly in these types of missions," Ross said.
Switzerland has two soldiers in UNSMIS. In an email statement, the Swiss government said it could "terminate" the deployment "at any time" in response to changing circumstances.
UNSMIS also has three Czech monitors. In another email statement, the Czech government said decisions on their future presence in Syria will be based in part on "close coordination" with fellow troop-contributing nations.
Entrusting Decisions to UNSMIS
Other members of UNSMIS said that they would only withdraw their monitors if U.N. authorities, including Norwegian observer chief Robert Mood, advise them to take that step. Those nations include Brazil, Croatia, Denmark and Fiji.
Timur Goksel is a former spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, or UNIFIL. Reached by phone in Beirut, he said many nations trust the decisions of U.N. commanders.
"After all, there's a military command, a trusted, experienced man at the top with a proper military command structure," Goksel said. "Most countries are quite satisfied with that. They will keep an eye on the situation, of course they will. But they will not interfere with the U.N."
The Croatian government said that any withdrawal of its two observers from Syria would be carried out in accordance with an UNSMIS document called a "Concept of Operations."
Ross said the document describes how monitors would be evacuated in emergencies. "What they are talking about regarding withdrawal is do they fly out, do they drive through Lebanon, and then fly from Beirut, do they cross into Jordan, go through Israel - those types of logistics of getting their people out and then back to Croatia."
Should Observers Leave?
Diplomats said UNSMIS contributors and other U.N. members also differ on whether the observers should leave Syria or stay.
Joshua Landis is the head of Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University. Speaking from Oklahoma, he said that some Western nations including the United States want the monitors to leave because they see them as an obstacle to regime change, in which Syrian rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad.
"Most of them would argue that regime change is going to be the only way to stop the violence," Landis said. "But as long as the U.N. is in there saying they want everybody to stop shooting, then it doesn't make sense to try to get arms to the rebels."
Goksel said other U.N. members want the observer mission to stay because they believe it helps to restrain Syria's violence.
"These guys, simply by being there, by being an international observer force, by recording what's happening, it puts pressures on all the parties to the conflict. That in itself is a very valuable input. And nobody should expect anything more than that."
UN's 'Terrible Dilemma'
Landis said the United Nations faces what he calls a "terrible dilemma" about what to do with the observers.
"They're worried that if they stay and they continue to do their patrols they're going to get blown up and their members will get killed," he said. "They're also equally worried that if they withdraw and say the mission is finished and clean their hands of the whole thing, and then Syria goes to hell in a hand-bucket and there are big massacres, the whole world is going to scream bloody murder, why is the U.N. not there?"
Ross said another option for the United Nations is sending the observers home and asking General Mood and some of his civilian staff to relocate to nearby Cyprus. He said the team could move quickly back into Syria when an opportunity arises.