UN Observers Headed to Douma
UN Observers Headed to Douma Reuters

UN observers tasked with monitoring a theoretical ceasefire in Syria returned to Douma on Wednesday to 'de-escalate' the situation in the town east of Damascus.

Following the monitors visit to Douma on Monday, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed by tanks reportedly attacked the town.

"In the morning when we first visited Douma, we found that there is a need to de-escalate the situation there UN observer team spokesman Neeraj Singh said, at the Damascus hotel where the observers are based. "This is a part of our role here."

"We are carrying out liaison activities where we are establishing contact with the parties and doing all the preparatory work on the ground for the larger mission to come," Singh explained. "In this process we have a role of de-escalating the situation. We do that -- and we did that yesterday in Douma – by maintaining our presence on the ground, patrolling the area for a good number of hours, through our liaison activities."

"So this was the focus of our attention from the team in Damascus yesterday which went to Douma,” he added.

UN special envoy Kofi Annan - citing reports of another instance, in Hama, saying Assad's troops moved in after the observers had departed, shooting and killing at least 31 people - told the UN Security Council on Tuesday the situation in Syria was "bleak."

He said, however, that he believed even a small number of observers could have a large impact in altering the facts on the ground.

There are currently less than 20 monitors in Syria, visiting areas impacted Assad's now 14-month long crackdown on a popular uprising against his autocratic rule which has left at least 9,100 civilians dead.

Assad's regime has routinely responded to protests with gunfire and shelled populous neighborhoods it deems to be opposition strongholds on the pretext of fighting an insurgency by foreign terrorists.

In recent months reports of war crimes including systemic rape, torture, and mass summary executions by Assad's forces have become increasingly common.

The Security Council has authorized 300 observers in total. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon joined Annan is urging the world body to speed up their deployment.

Travelling in small teams, the monitors have been filmed by amateur cameramen in the country, in their blue UN helmets and bullet-proof vests, meeting rebels and residents of shelled neighborhoods around the country.

However, reports have also begun to circulate that those who approach the monitors are being targeted by Assad's forces and ever present secret police organizations.

Syria's population is estimated at about 23 million spread over 180,000 sq. kilometers of disparate terrain., raising doubts that even the full 300-monitor force would be able to oversee a ceasefire.

Making the situation even more difficult is that rebel commanders of the Free Syria Army have only tentatively accepted the ceasefire, and lack a central command and communications system.

FSA forces, commanded by dissident senior officers who have taken refuge in Turkey, are primarily comprised of Syrian Army defectors who poorly organized and equipped.