United Nations peacekeepers have repeatedly been in the headlines through 2013, grappling with crises across Africa. But the year's single greatest challenge to the U.N.’s strategic credibility—the Syrian military’s large-scale use of chemical weapons in Ghouta in August—took place with no peacekeepers in sight. The best the organization could do in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity was to dispatch chemical weapons inspectors to the scene, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pleaded for time for them to investigate.
Yet at the beginning of this year, it appeared quite possible that international peacekeepers would deploy to Syria in the course of 2013. In the last months of 2012, planners at U.N. headquarters drew up proposals for a large-scale blue-helmeted observation force to police any cease-fire between President Bashar Assad and his armed opponents. After the 300-strong U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) had withdrawn in 2012, the planners believed that any new mission would need to involve 3,000 personnel or more. Some speculated the figure could eventually rise as high as 10,000.
Even those who favored a deployment feared that it could go badly wrong, with the peacekeepers surrounded by endemic violence. A major terrorist attack or chemical weapons incident could present the U.N. with a humiliating disaster. Nonetheless, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, argued that some sort of military presence would be required to give credibility to any cease-fire deal.