Danish Lt. Col. Peter Dahl, the head of the United Nations monitoring group assigned to the city of Hama, made no effort to hide his frustration. He’d come to Syria, he thought, to watch over a cease-fire.
“I’ve had to redefine my own mission,” Dahl said, as he met with the local commander of anti-government rebels, Maj. Jamil Saleh, an army deserter. “There is no cease-fire.”
Instead, Dahl told Saleh, he now considers it his mission to document Syrian regime atrocities.
The U.N. monitors, who are expected to number 300 when their full complement is in place, have yet to provide any kind of statistical report on what they’ve seen during the weeks they’ve been deployed under a peace plan brokered by the U.N.’s special envoy to Syria, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
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But Thursday’s meeting between Dahl and Saleh, witnessed by a reporter who was there at the invitation of the rebels, displayed the difficulties of the U.N.’s task in a country where the violence has declined, but still is horribly constant.
Saleh told Dahl that while he welcomed the U.N. observers, their visits often resulted in attacks by forces that support President Bashar Assad after their departure. Dahl proposed that future meetings be at a secret remote location to ease the possibility of reprisal attacks on populated areas. The two exchanged contact information and agreed to coordinate all future visits to Latamneh.
For his part, Dahl complained to a reporter that the rebels are disorganized and unable to provide a single contact point for peace negotiations. Noting that U.N. observers don’t carry weapons, he asked Saleh to provide a security escort for the team as it moved through the countryside. He asked to be shown nearby Syrian army checkpoints, but he was told that the checkpoints had been abandoned temporarily ahead of the monitors’ visit.
Dahl’s team included observers from Mauritania, Morocco and the Czech Republic. The Moroccan served as a translator, but the differences between the Arabic spoken in his native land and that spoken here was sometimes great; an English-speaking rebel fighter provided assistance.
Civilians crowded the window and door of the small room, trying to get a glimpse of the observers. A small girl stood in the corner, holding her brother. Dahl smoked a pipe.
Latamneh, just outside Hama, is under the control of the rebels, who move freely and carry weapons openly. It’s about three miles from the town of Khan Sheikhoun, where a different U.N. observer team recently spent the night under rebel protection after one of its vehicles struck a homemade bomb. On Sunday, Khan Sheikhoun was the scene of a battle during which rebel forces repelled a Syrian army attack. Fire from the Syrian military forces killed at least two civilian children and one man during the attack.
One fighter showed Dahl a Kalashnikov round that he claimed was booby-trapped. He said regime forces scattered the rounds in the streets, in the hope that rebel fighters would gather and use them. The rounds allegedly explode when fired. Dahl took the round with him for further analysis.
A crowd of several hundred gathered outside the meeting, chanting anti-regime slogans. Many waved the three-starred rebel flag or carried photographs of those reportedly killed during the 14-month-old uprising. Someone had scrawled “Freedom for Syria” in English and “Bashar, get out” in Arabic in the dust on one U.N. vehicle’s windows.
The enthusiastic crowd pressed in close to the monitors as they returned to their vehicles. Rebel fighters provided a measure of control. While walking to his vehicle, Dahl took several photographs of buildings reportedly destroyed by Syrian regime forces.
A rebel convoy of cars and motorcycles escorted the monitors from the area. Dahl said rebel forces usually escorted the observers to the edge of the territory they controlled, after which the observers continued alone until they linked up with their Syrian army escort near Hama.
Syrian army forces are unable to move freely in rebel-controlled territory, but before the meeting, two attack helicopters could be seen circling over Khan Sheikhoun. Later that night, the rumble of exploding tank rounds reverberated across the darkness.