OSLO (Reuters) - Robert Mood, the tall, square-jawed and fair-haired Norwegian general heading the Syria ceasefire observer mission, appears the archetypal cool Nordic head who will use an image of impartiality to bridge what he has called an “abyss of suspicion.”
Mood is a veteran of struggling Middle East truces and knows Syria well. The stern-looking 54-year-old general weighs his words carefully and listens attentively. He once warned against peacekeepers’ acting like “an elephant in a glass house.”
His job may be doomed, given mistrust in Syria. But he may have the chance to achieve more than Sudanese general Mohammed al-Dabi, who quit a failed Arab League mission in February, stymied by diplomatic slip-ups and his country’s own poor rights record.
“He (Mood) is a very firm and very clear in his statements, he’s very difficult to misunderstand,” said Kjell Inge Bjerga, researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, who has worked with Mood.
“He has remarkable diplomatic skills, which is unusual for a general. He has the ability to speak the language of all the sides.”
While he was in Damascus negotiating the deployment of the advanced party of monitors with the government earlier this month, Mood received a text message from his sister.
“Lucky you grew up between an older sister and a younger sister, you turned out to be useful,” the message said.
Mood has tested his skills with multinational forces in Kosovo, and he is part of a tradition of Norwegian involvement in Middle East peacekeeping. The country likes to see itself - and its generals - as above suspicion when it comes to diplomacy.
“Experience in the Balkans is very powerful experience given the complexity of that situation,” said Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at Britain’s University of Bradford.
“And Norway has a reputation as a nation genuinely devoted to peace. So a Norwegian comes in with added credibility.”
As head of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation from 2009-2011, which monitors Middle East ceasefires, Mood often visited Damascus and he is said to already have good contacts with Syrian military officers.
“I fell in love with Damascus in 2009. I have never been received with so much warmth,” he told Reuters in an interview shortly after he was appointed to his new post. He described how he could walk around the “dark alleys” of Damascus with his wife and son and feel welcome and safe.
The capital is less safe these days. Seven people were killed by a suicide bomber in the city centre on Friday, Syria’s state-run news agency reported.
Mood told a Lebanese newspaper, The Daily Star, in 2009 that his philosophy then as a U.N. truce monitor was “you don’t come in like the elephant in the glass house and dictate to the people. That doesn’t work.”
But his new posting will severely test him. While 300 observers are planned, so far there are only a handful, unarmed and largely dependent on Syrian authorities for their safety.
With the violence continuing despite an ostensible ceasefire, fifteen more monitors out of a total advance team of 30 were expected to arrive in Syria by Monday. Despite efforts to speed up the deployment of the full mission, it is not expected to get up to strength for several weeks.
Opposition sources and residents say that shelling by government forces and retribution against local people increase once observers have left any place they visit.
“It will be a hugely challenging position,” said retired British Brigadier Ben Barry, who is now land warfare fellow at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“It’s not clear from a Security Council resolution what responsibility there is on the Syrians to facilitate access for the monitors. We don’t know how much flexibility you will have.”
The failed Arab League mission quickly ran into trouble earlier in the year, despised by the Syrian opposition who said it was simply a device to buy more time for President Bashar al-Assad to try to crush demonstrators and armed rebels.
Things have not got any easier. An advance team for the present U.N. observer mission were mobbed last week by angry pro-Assad demonstrators who surrounded their vehicles as gunfire erupted close by.
Mood, from tiny Krageroe on Norway’s southern coast, joined the Norwegian army in 1979 and has served from 2005 to 2009 as the army’s Chief of Staff. He has degrees from Norwegian and U.S. military colleges and also attended the NATO Defence College in Rome.
In an official announcement about Mood’s appointment, the U.N. press office said Mood was Operations Officer with the Norwegian Battalion in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) during the 1980s, when the country was immersed in civil war.
“General Mood is very familiar with the region, and his long experience and close relationship with the U.N. means that he will be able to make a strong contribution to an issue that has become central to international peace and security,” Norwegian Minister of Defence Espen Barth Eide said in a statement.
But Eide added that he has “realistic expectations” of what the observer force led by Mood can achieve, describing the situation in Syria as fragile and the monitoring mission risky.
Bjerga, the researcher who worked with Mood, called him a “pioneer” about peacekeeping in the Balkans, and others agree that experience was formative.
“He is a laconic, tough commander with a good background in the Balkans although his conventional warfighting experience will be limited,” said one European military officer who knows him.
“When it comes to negotiating with the Syrian authorities he will be no pushover. He will be robust, determined and pretty single-minded.”
When first called to Syria, Mood was skiing with his family in the mountains.
Like many Norwegians, he is keen on sailing and comes across as something of a renaissance man in interviews, managing to combine mentions of opera with talk about his work.
“A good opera is all about combining very different elements into a piece that eventually becomes very impressive,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
“It mirrors the team work we often carry out both in the military and in international work.”
Mood says when got the call asking him to lead the assessment team: “It was an easy choice to say yes.”
“It’s worth making the effort,” he said about his mission and international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan. “The Syrian people deserve to have an opportunity.”
It also carries immense risks.
“These conditions are more or less the most difficult you can expect ... It is quite a risky career move for Mood,” said Rogers.
Additional reporting by Peter Apps in Washington and Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Giles Elgood and Vicki Allen