When the United Nations sends peacekeepers to war zones, there are often excessive expectations about what they can achieve. By contrast, pessimism surrounds the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), which is supposed to oversee a ceasefire and create space for talks between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and its opponents. U.S. officials, having fought hard in the Security Council to maximize the mission's autonomy and authority, have warned that it is too weak to succeed. While only a handful of the planned total of 300 hundred monitors are on the ground so far, the Norwegian general in charge has admitted that even 1,000 might not be sufficient.
Many previous U.N. missions have been undermanned and overwhelmed. And this isn't the smallest peacekeeping operation the U.N. has launched. In 1965, the organization authorized two military observers to help track a U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic. But it's rare for Security Council members and U.N. officials to emphasize that a new operation is likely to fail. Why are they doing so in the Syrian case?
The answer may be that UNSMIS marks a deeply troubling turning point in U.N. peacekeeping. Since the late-1990s, U.N. officials, haunted by the organization's failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, have pushed to ensure that peace operations are properly equipped to stabilize weak countries -- or at least robust enough not to implode in an emergency. As Bruce Jones recently wrote in World Politics Review, U.N. missions in hot spots such as Côte d'Ivoire have proved unexpectedly resilient under pressure.