By By EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The Security Council agreed Thursday to end the U.N. military observer mission in Syria in the face of an escalating civil war and back a new liaison office in Damascus to support U.N. and Arab League efforts to end the country’s 18-month conflict.
France’s U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, the current Security Council president, said members who have been deeply divided on tackling the conflict were united behind U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s proposal to replace the 300 unarmed observers with a small group of military advisers and political, human rights and civil affairs experts.
Araud said the council agreed that conditions set for possibly extending the observer mission - a significant reduction in violence and an end to the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons - had not been met and the mission’s mandate would end Sunday.
The mission has been severely limited in its work by the violence in Syria, and members have been mainly confined to their hotels since June 15.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, whose country is the most important ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, invited U.N. ambassadors from key nations and regional and international organizations who agreed in June in Geneva on guidelines for a Syrian-led political transition to a meeting Friday at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Churkin told reporters he wants the Geneva action group - along with “important actors” Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are not members - to make “a joint or parallel appeal to all the parties of the Syrian conflict that they end violence as soon as possible by a certain point in time.”
Churkin said the appeal should also urge the government and opposition to appoint representatives “to negotiate towards a political solution, and in particular towards the establishment of a transitional governing body as provided for in the Geneva document.”
In a letter to the council last Friday, Ban said the conditions for extending the observer mission had not been met, but he added that “it is imperative for the United Nations to have a presence in Syria” aside from its humanitarian operation in order to support U.N. and Arab League efforts “in mediating and facilitating a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”
The Security Council initially authorized the 300-strong observer mission to deploy to Syria for 90 days to monitor implementation of a six-point peace plan brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The plan was to start with a cease-fire and withdrawal of the government’s heavy weapons and culminate with Syrian-led political talks.
Assad’s government and opposition forces agreed to the plan, but it was never implemented.
Because of the worsening bloodshed and insecurity, the observer mission has been cut by about two-thirds.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Edmond Mulet told reporters after briefing the council behind closed doors that the observer mission “will come to an end at midnight Sunday.”
There are currently 101 observers and 72 civilian staff members in Syria, he said. In order to have an orderly departure, the last observers will leave Aug. 24, but they will not do any work after Sunday.
Mulet said discussions are under way on the new U.N. liaison office, which he said has been approved by the Syrian government and will have about 20-30 staff members.
Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed Security Council resolutions that would have stepped up pressure especially against the Syrian government by threatening sanctions if the fighting didn’t stop.
Frustrated at the escalating conflict and the failure of the Security Council to unite to stop the chaos, Annan announced last month that he was resigning effective Aug. 31.
Mulet said he expected an announcement of a replacement for Annan “very soon.”
On Tuesday, a spokesman for Annan said Syrian authorities have backed former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter in hotspots including Afghanistan and Iraq, as his successor, but it was unclear whether Brahimi had accepted the post.
Several U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made, said Brahimi wants a signal of support from the council.
Associated Press Writer Ron DePasquale contributed to this report from the United Nations