Robert Fisk: UN leaves Syria to its bloody fate

Special report: As the international troops retreat, heavy arms will flood into what will become a free-fire zone

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
Share
Related Topics

The UN's commander in Damascus bid a miserable goodbye to his mission yesterday, unconvincingly claiming that the UN would not abandon Syria, but in fact turning the country into a free-fire zone the moment his last 100 soldiers begin their retreat tomorrow. Whenever the UN withdraws its personnel from the Middle East, calamity always follows in its wake – the departure of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in 2003 presaged the Anglo-American invasion – and, privately, the UN fears the way is now open for the West and Gulf Arabs to pour heavy weapons into Syria to assist the rebellion against the Assad regime.

As General Babacar Gaye was standing in the lobby of the luxury Damas Rose Hotel, absurdly wishing Muslims a happy Eid holiday following the fasting month of Ramadan, and insisting that "the UN will not leave Syria", his own officers were packing their bags and queuing to pay their last hotel bills on the other side of the atrium. "They couldn't even wait until Lakhdar Brahimi got here to take over as UN envoy," one of Gaye's officials grumbled. The general declined to tell journalists whether more Syrian lives might have been saved if the UN stayed on.

To watch footage of UN staff preparing for their depature from Syria, click on the following links Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4

Outside, in the bright, hot Damascus afternoon, the often empty streets and shuttered shops spoke of lassitude rather than collapse. Bashar al-Assad's regime does not appear to be on the verge of departure – as American and French diplomats fondly believe – but the signs of dislocation are everywhere. Soldiers are billeted in the old Ottoman Haj station in central Damascus – from which no trains have left for Syrian cities in months – but the daily Syrian government-controlled press (there is no other) carries front-page stories from the war front each day. The capture of "Free Syrian Army" weapons, the assassination of civilians in and around Damascus – always attributed to "terrorists", of course – and fighting speeches by government acolytes make no secret of the nation's peril.

Perhaps for this reason, Syrians in Damascus speak with increasing freedom about the chances of the regime's survival, openly debating Bashar's victory or defeat in cafés and restaurants. All know that just a few miles outside the capital, a dark zone begins, a land – thousands of square kilometres of it – in which terrible deeds are taking place hourly. The main highways north have been cut and phone lines to Aleppo have largely collapsed; most travellers choose to fly to the city from Damascus, even though the road from Aleppo airport to the city centre is itself dangerous. Syrian Arab Airlines' main ticket office in Damascus was packed with passengers yesterday, all seeking flights out of the country or pleading for overbooked seats for relatives on planes from Aleppo.

And yet. The regime, whose history and roots go deep into the land of Syria – however brutal and corrupting its opponents believe those roots to be – seems to have more life in it than the Clintons and the Panettas and the Laurent Fabiuses of this world might believe. When French foreign minister Fabius – after listening to refugees' stories of atrocities in Syria – announces that Bashar al-Assad "doesn't deserve to be on this earth", his words appear infantile rather than threatening; indeed they sound like the kind of nonsense often spouted by Arab dictators. Damascenes are looking to their families rather than revenge; one middle-class man I have known for years told me yesterday how his wife worked for a government office but he had "moved her to home" so that she would be safe. The information ministry have produced a DVD packed with tapes of "terrorist" bomb explosions across the country – while admitting that the disk doesn't yet take in last week's truck bombing near the UN's hotel.

General Gaye's last goodbye was as bleak as it was short. After UN troops had arrived on 21 April to monitor the withdrawal of heavy weapons and a ceasefire, violence declined, he said, but "by the middle of June, it was clear that the parties were no longer committed to the ceasefire". UN observers then tried "to facilitate pauses in the fighting" to assist humanitarian work. "I call upon all parties to stop the violence which is causing such suffering to the Syrian people," General Gaye proclaimed, adding that humanitarian law must be respected.

But, needless to say, humanitarian law is not – and will not – be respected, and from tomorrow there will be no-one left to "facilitate pauses in the fighting". When I asked the good general how he personally felt about the failure of his mission, he replied that he was comforted by the fact that "the UN will stay in Syria". But this was preposterous. Save for a tiny UN office – with perhaps 10 staff – which has still not been approved, there is no UN observer mission left here, save for the post-1967 war UNTSO (UN Truce Supervision Organization) force which is fully engaged on keeping the Syrian-Israeli peace on the Golan Heights. The UN soldiers who have bravely sat through the shellfire of Aleppo and Homs will be there no longer.

Should the UN's Syrian mission have been led by a diplomat rather than a soldier – no-one here appears to understand why the Norwegian General Mood, General Gaye's predecessor, left his post – and should it have spent more time talking to opposition forces outside Syria, were questions still being debated within the UN yesterday. And why end the mission now? Because there were some in UN headquarters in New York who knew from the start that the assignment was not intended to succeed? Or because the Western nations and Gulf sponsors do not want UN observers snooping into the amount of new and more lethal weaponry which they may be planning to send to the "Free Syrian Army" and its more bearded allies in those parts of Syria in which Bashar's writ no longer runs?

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor’s Letter: The Sussex teenager killed fighting in Syria

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Actor Zac Efron  

Keep your shirt on Zac – we'd all be better for it

Howard Jacobson
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit