The following is a transcript of an interview with the Head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, Norwegian General Robert Mood, done in Damascus on May 5, 2012 by VOA Middle East Correspondent Elizabeth Arrott.
ELIZABETH ARROTT: U.N. officials have said they’ve seen signs that there’s been a reduction in violence under the plan, but we’re still seeing these amateur videos of really quite horrific attacks. What can you quantify in terms of a reduction in violence since you have been here?
GENERAL ROBERT MOOD: I arrived six days ago, on Sunday, so the mission has been on the ground for six days. What is very important to note is that where we go, currently, with 40 unarmed observers, but we are spreading out into different cities – so we are on the ground in Homs, in Hama, in Idlib and Daraa and Rif Damascus – we see that we have a calming effect on the situation, so we have seen in these places a significant reduction in shelling. We have seen a significant reduction in shooting. We cannot be in all places obviously with that amount of observers, but I can indeed verify that in six days we have seen a calming effect and a reduction in violence where we have people deployed on the ground.
ARROTT: Specifically, do you see things like the Syrian army not firing unless it is being fired upon. Have you have seen the withdrawal of tanks, of troops back to their barracks and if so that they’ve stayed there and it’s continued after your team has left. Is there a way to monitor that?
MOOD: What I can verify in a couple of instances, in several instances that my observers already on the ground have engaged with both elements from the Syrian army and with elements from the opposition and they have taken the advice of the observers to move to a different location because this would be seen as something that would be challenging the agreement and the commitment that has been made by the parties. So, we are seeing very specific, concrete steps on the ground that the arrival of the observers have an effect and their advice on the ground is being respected.
ARROTT: And again, how can you ensure that is held after you leave the area?
MOOD: Our challenge indeed that we are currently have 40 observers and we will become 300 observers I hope by the end of the month if not earlier. We cannot obviously be in every hot spot all the time, and whether you have 300 or several more hundred observers that is going to continue to be the case. So, what we are working on is a specific plan where you can go back to the specific site where you had an engagement, where you gave an advice and to verify that the advice when it was taken is respected also twelve hours or twenty four hours or two days later.
But I get a sense that all the players are eager to see this move forward on the basis of political solutions because they see that the alternative – more violence, more kids being killed, more trouble for families in these hot spots – is a very bad alternative.
ARROTT: The point of the mission is to get to a point where it’s calm enough that serious political talks can take place, presumably that would be Mr. Anan’s call when that is being reached, but from a military stand point, what are you looking for?
MOOD: We are specifically looking, in UNSMIS (UN Supervision Mission in Syria), at the violence, at the cessation of violence, at the calming effect and of course we are combining that with the talks we have with all parties, with leaders from many factions. I have myself left what we could name government controlled areas and had engagement locally, on the ground, with the opposition, with the armed opposition and received commitments from them.
And a common message, a very strong common message from the government and from the opposition is that they would like to see Kofi Annan succeed with his Six Point Plan. I get the sense that there is a willingness. We should not overestimate it. It is too early to judge how big this opportunity is. But I get a sense that all the players are eager to see this move forward on the basis of political solutions because they see that the alternative – more violence, more kids being killed, more trouble for families in these hot spots – is a very bad alternative.
ARROTT: So you’re hearing from the Free Syrian Army people here that they want to abide by the plan, but we’re also hearing from the opposition, especially outside, that they want to have the military wing of the opposition armed.
MOOD: There is an element of fragmentation in all this that obviously is a challenge. But what I can tell you from my engagement is that whomever I meet, they tell me that they want to move on the basis of Kofi Annan’s Six Point Plan, and that includes the Free Syrian Army locally, and that includes Local Coordination Committees.
I am fully aware that there are others with different agenda, that have other ideas, but I have yet to see a credible alternative to Kofi Annan’s Six Point Plan. So one way to put it is that it’s for now the only game in town. That means everyone involved, whether we are talking about the observers on the ground, whether we are talking about Kofi Annan, whether we are talking about the Syrian government, the opposition, everyone, they need to work together and to try, each of them, to widen these opportunities and then we have a choice. We can move in a direction of a political solution, slowly, step by step. Not in six days, not in twelve days, but step by step in a direction where we will have the political dimension being dominating instead of the violence being dominating.
ARROTT: There seems to be an additional wild card thrown into this: the emergence of some jihadist groups like Jabhat al Nusra. How serious do you think the threat is that they could scuttle the plan by making it impossible for the Syrian government to stand down?
MOOD: I’ve heard, I’ve been given these messages by several people. I cannot verify that there are other groups on the ground but I’m receiving the same messages. Now the message from me, from the mission, from the U.N. and I believe in this context I could also add from the other players involved is we are not going to serve the aspirations of the Syrian people by more weapons, by more bombs, by more violence.
We are going to serve the aspirations of the Syrian people and the families and the children of Syria by choosing the other route. So whomever, whomever sees more guns, more bombs, more violence as a solution in Syria should refrain from putting that into the situation and give the Syrian people the opportunity to move forward without violence.
ARROTT: Have you heard reports about the emergence of these groups, presumably from the government, but also from the opposition side?
MOOD: I have heard the argument from several sides that there are – might be someone in the country that come from the outside and to be quite frank, I’ve also received the message from almost the same players across the spectrum that they don’t want to see the future of Syria – a very proud, warm, hospitable people being dictated by groups from the outside, having different agendas. They want the Syrian people to decide their direction on the basis of Kofi Annan’s Six Point Plan.
ARROTT: On a practical matter, we’ve heard reports that sometimes when people opposed to the government come and speak to the monitors when they’re traveling around, that there have been reprisals against them afterwards. What steps do you take to make sure that while you’re trying to help that you don’t actually make the situation worse for certain individuals?
MOOD: There’s obviously a risk when we are in a situation where you have what you could call an abyss of suspicion. Not surprisingly and understandable from whichever direction you look at it, that you the fear of how information might be used and you have different reports on these things going on.
So, what we are doing on the ground is to make sure that when we engage with people that we are doing that in a place, in a setting where, to the extent possible, we can hope, we can believe, we can verify that risk is minimized. And we also take very strong care that we are using names, we are using any information in a way that will not put anyone at a greater risk.
ARROTT: The mission, obviously, is to work for the cease-fire but there are other elements involved including the release of detained, arbitrarily detained people, the easing of the humanitarian situation. You’re stretched so thin on the monitoring level, how do you prioritize these other areas?
MOOD: The mission of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria can be described, simplified in two dimensions. We are focusing on monitoring the cessation of armed violence in all its forms. We’re doing that by presence on the ground, by pushing out and by engaging in a dialogue building trust with the parties.
The second part of it, which is secondary, is to support the other elements of the Kofi Annan’s plan. On these issues – you have the humanitarian issues, you have the detainees issues, you have other issues – on these issues, we report, based on listening, seeing, going to places and observing and when we collect that information, we make sure that that assessment, that evaluation, that information is received by the agencies that have a delivery responsibility in Syria.
Key players being the Syrian Red Crescent, key players being the other agencies, delivering on this. Our role is to report and then try to give them, or verify the information to them so that they can take care of the delivering aspects of those points of Kofi Annan’s Six Point Plan.
ARROTT: In your time previously in Syria, you’ve spoken about the warmth of the Syrian people. Among the people that you built relations with, were any of them opposed to Assad and being able to in, what you call, the abyss of suspicion in previous times?
MOOD: I left Syria last time in February 2011. It was a very different situation. I think it is key for any audience, if I might use that term, outside Syria to understand that the Syria we meet on the ground is very different from the Syria they see through the dramatic headlines in the media and through the reports in the written media. The Syrian people, they are proud, they are warm, they are extremely proud of their history. They are also proud of the secular characteristics of their society. And they are scared about the alternative, many of them, because that alternative for them is seen as a collapse and a direction that would lead to even more violence and more suffering.
So at the surface of it, in Syria today, the amount of normalcy, to put it that way, across the country is rather surprising. And the highways, they’re all very high quality, so you can, if you travel in Syria avoiding, let’s say, the hotspots, you can get a feel for a very, very normal, open, hospitable country – almost a normalcy. But then you have almost a black and white change, because when you go into the hotspots, you meet children, families, individuals that have been through a terrible amount of suffering and that are living under conditions that are not conditions any human beings should be living under. So it’s a different situation.
But I think it’s fair to say that the Syrian people, they are now at a very, very important crossroads – they Syrian government and the opposition alike. There is a possibility. We have a choice. We can move this country together – the observer force, the government, the opposition, the politicians – in the direction of less violence and a political solution. The other choice is not something I want to talk about and address, but it’s a choice that I hear all the parties being skeptical to and fearing. That provides some hope for the future of this mission and the future of the Syrian people and their aspirations.
Cairo Bureau chief and regional correspondent, Voice of America. Reporting news of the Arab Spring and other developments across the Middle East and North Africa