BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian opposition activists accused the United Nations on Wednesday of “playing with Syrian lives” by dragging out the deployment of ceasefire monitors in the country.
Responding to an announcement that it will take another month to deploy 100 unarmed military observers to oversee a shaky April 12 truce agreement, most activists reacted with a mixture of anger and apathy.
“It takes them a month to arrive? Are they coming on horses?” said a resident from the city of Homs, which has endured sustained shelling by the army. He asked to be referred to only by the nickname ‘Sami’ for fear of arrest.
There are currently 15 monitors in Syria, visiting areas torn by a 13-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has responded to protests with gunfire and shelled central districts of opposition strongholds, saying it is fighting an “armed terrorist” revolt.
On Tuesday, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the Security Council, which has authorized 300 monitors to go to Syria, that it will take a month to deploy the first 100.
“After one month we will have maybe 1,000 or 2,000 people killed - it’s ridiculous. How can the international community watch without moving quickly,” said Mousab al-Hamadi, an opposition resident from Hama province, where activists say 31 people were killed on Monday when the army shelled and stormed the Arbaeen district of Hama city, a day after the monitors visited.
“When killing happens in Palestine, even though the United States is an ally of Israel, the whole international community presses Israel more than they have pressed the Assad regime,” he said.
Walid Fares, an activist living in nearby Homs city, which has seen months of shelling, said that the United Nations was “playing with the lives of Syrians,” by its slow progress to get monitors on the ground.
“This has just given the regime more time to kill us,” he said over Skype. “We are being killed right now, we are not being killed in a month’s time.”
Travelling in small teams, the monitors have been filmed by amateur videographers in the country, in their blue U.N. helmets and bullet-proof vests, meeting rebels and residents of shelled neighborhoods around the country.
Activist videos have mocked the monitors, filming themselves dressed as the monitors in fake blue clothes, and pretending that they can neither see nor hear the violence — a jibe at the monitors who many say are useless.
“Our reaction to U.N. monitors depends on whether they are active or not,” said Hamadi. “Yesterday, they came to (Hama). After they left, the people began to flee because they know that after the U.N. monitors leave the security forces will come and arrest people who have talked to them.”
“We want them if they really have means of pressuring the regime. But if they are just here to watch how we are being killed, we don’t want more watchers,” he said, although admitting that Hama, where two monitors are now based, was calm on Wednesday.
Ceasefire mediator Kofi Annan told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that even a small number of observers can have an enormous impact.
However, according to a transcript of his remarks, Annan said he was “particularly alarmed by reports that government troops entered Hama (on Monday) after observers departed, firing automatic weapons and killing a significant number of people.”
“If confirmed, this is totally unacceptable and reprehensible,” he said, expressing concern about reports of fighting in areas where the advance team of monitors has not been present in recent days, including Idlib and Deraa.
Sami said that the situation in Homs had improved greatly since a group of monitors arrived on Saturday. He said government shelling had stopped completely for the first time in two and a half months, although he could still hear the occasional light machine guns being fired.
“We have two monitors in the city and look at the impact it has had. Imagine if the number was raised,” he said.
Syria’s population is estimated at about 23 million, spread across mountains, deserts and farmland over 180,000 sq. km., raising doubts that even the full 300-monitor force would be able to oversee a ceasefire that both sides appear to disregard.
The U.N. says security forces have killed at least 9,000 people in the conflict. Damascus says 2,600 of its security personnel have died at the hands of insurgents.
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans