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Norwegian general faces uphill task as UN monitor

(Reuters) / 27 April 2012

Robert Mood, the Norwegian general heading the Syria ceasefire observer mission, appears the archetypal cool Nordic head who will use an image of impartiality to bridge what he has called an “abyss of suspicion”.

Mood is a veteran of Middle East truces and knows Syria well. The 54-year-old general weighs his words carefully and listens attentively. He once warned against peacekeepers’ acting like “an elephant in a glass house”.

His job may be doomed, given mistrust in Syria. But he may have the chance to achieve more than Sudanese general Mohammed Al Dabi, who quit a failed Arab League mission in February.

“He (Mood) is a very firm and very clear in his statements, he’s very difficult to misunderstand, said Kjell Inge Bjerga, researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, who has worked with Mood.

“He has remarkable diplomatic skills, which is unusual for a general. He has the ability to speak the language of all the sides.” Mood has tested his skills with multinational forces in Kosovo, and he is part of a tradition of Norwegian involvement in Middle East peacekeeping. The country likes to see itself — and its generals — as above suspicion when it comes to diplomacy.

As head of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation from 2009-2011, which monitors Middle East ceasefires, Mood often visited Damascus and he is said to already have good contacts with Syrian military officers.

“I fell in love with Damascus in 2009. I have never been received with so much warmth,” he said in an interview shortly after he was appointed to his new post.

He described how he could walk around the “dark alleys” of Damascus with his wife and son and feel welcome and safe.

The capital is less safe these days. Seven people were killed by a suicide bomber in the city centre on Friday, Syria’s state-run news agency reported.

Mood told a Lebanese newspaper, The Daily Star, in 2009 that his philosophy then as a UN truce monitor was “you don’t come in like the elephant in the glass house and dictate to the people.

That doesn’t work”. But his new posting will severely test him. While 300 observers are planned, so far there are only a handful, unarmed and largely dependent on Syrian authorities for their safety.

With the violence continuing, 15 more monitors out of a total advance team of 30 were expected to arrive in Syria by Monday. Mood, from tiny Krageroe on Norway’s southern coast, joined the Norwegian army in 1979 and has served from 2005 to 2009 as the army’s chief of staff.

He has degrees from Norwegian and US military colleges. He told The Daily Star that he had also worked as a UN peace keeper in Lebanon during the 1980s, when the country immersed in civil war.

“He is a laconic, tough commander with a good background in the Balkans although his conventional warfighting experience will be limited,” said one European military officer who knows him.

“When it comes to negotiating with the Syrian authorities he will be no pushover. He will be robust, determined and pretty singleminded.” Mood says when got the call asking him to lead the assessment team: “It was an easy choice to say yes.” “It’s worth making the effort,” he said about his mission and international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan. “The Syrian people deserve to have an opportunity.”

 
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