(AP) — The Security Council on Thursday will debate whether to establish a new civilian office to support U.N. and Arab League efforts to end the 18-month conflict in Syria as the U.N. military observer mission comes to an end Sunday.
The council had set two conditions for possibly extending the mission of the unarmed observers past Aug. 19: a halt to the government's use of heavy weapons and a significant reduction in violence. In a letter to the council last Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said neither condition was met and Syria now risks "a descent into a full-scale civil war."
But with the end of the unarmed observer mission looming, Ban said, "it is imperative for the United Nations to have a presence in Syria" aside from its humanitarian operation in order to support U.N. and Arab League efforts "in mediating and facilitating a peaceful resolution to the crisis."
"I intend therefore to work in the immediate future towards establishing an effective and flexible United Nations presence in Syria that will support our efforts with the parties to end hostilities," Ban said.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, the current Security Council president, said members will be discussing the observer mission and Ban's proposal at a closed meeting on Thursday where they will be briefed by Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Edmond Mulet.
"I think there is a consensus among the members of the Security Council that we need to have a U.N. presence remaining in Damascus, in Syria, after Aug. 20," Araud told reporters on Wednesday. "We'll see whether it's possible to have a consensus around the proposal of the secretary-general."
The Security Council initially authorized the 300-strong observer mission to deploy to Syria for 90 days to monitor implementation of a six-point peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The plan was to start with a cease-fire and withdrawal of the government's heavy weapons and culminate with Syrian-led political talks.
President Bashar Assad's government and opposition forces agreed to the plan, but it was never implemented.
Because of the worsening bloodshed and insecurity, the observers have been mainly confined to their hotels since June 15 and their numbers have been cut by about two-thirds.
The U.N. said Wednesday that 110 observers remain in Syria, mainly in Damascus. A bomb exploded Wednesday outside their hotel, wounding three people, but no observers were hurt.
Frustrated at the escalating conflict and the failure of world powers on the Security Council to unite to stop the chaos, Annan announced last month that he was resigning effective Aug. 31.
Ban told reporters in East Timor on Wednesday that he is expediting the selection of a successor to Annan, and he again urged government and opposition forces to stop the violence and start a political dialogue.
"More than 18,000 people have been killed during the last 18 months," Ban said. "The Syrian people have suffered too much too long. The international community must feel the sense of collective responsibility on this situation. How long do we have to endure this kind of a tragedy? This is not justice and this is not acceptable."
On Tuesday, a spokesman for Annan said Syrian authorities have backed former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter in hotspots including Afghanistan and Iraq, as his successor, but it was unclear whether Brahimi had accepted the post.
Several U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made, said Brahimi wants a signal of support from the deeply divided Security Council. Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed Security Council resolutions that would have stepped up pressure especially against the Syrian government by threatening sanctions if the fighting didn't stop.
France's Araud said he had no information about Brahimi but told reporters that any candidate to replace Annan has to take into account the council divisions and the situation on the ground. At the moment, both sides believe they can win militarily and there is no prospect of a political transition, he said.
"It's a bit (of an) impossible mission. So I do understand that people hesitate to take this mission, but ... we need to have somebody who could be available if there is any prospect of launching a political process," Araud said. "The U.N. simply can't leave the room."