Senator Ben Cardin, (D-MD), added his voice to those questioning Chuck Hagel's fitness for the job as defense secretary, faulting his former Senate colleague's preference for U.N. sanctions against Iran over U.S. bilateral measures.
Interviewed on MSNBC on Tuesday, Cardin took issue with Hagel's contention that it is wiser to pursue U.N. sanctions to compel Iran to curtail its nuclear ambitions than to impose unilateral U.S. sanctions.
"I have not supported unilateral sanctions because, when it is us alone, they don't work and they just isolate the United States," Hagel told his hometown paper, The Journal Star on Monday. "United Nations sanctions are working."
Cardin countered that the United States is "looked upon internationally as the leader and we have a responsibility to lead on sanctions." In a sense, Cardin and Hagel are both partly right. U.N. sanctions are having an impact on Iran's ability to do business. But they would not have nearly the same sting if they were not reinforced by a patchwork of U.S. and European measures that target Tehran's financial system and oil industry.
But Cardin used a curious example to make his case. In his interview, Cardin claimed that U.S. leadership on sanctions against South Africa in the era of white rule had helped bring about an end to Apartheid.
"If the United States would waited for the international community we dare say ... [it] ... would have been a lot longer before it ended its Apartheid state," Cardin said. "The United States showed leadership, the rest of the world followed."
Not so fast, Mr. Senator. The U.S. position on sanctions varied since 1948, when South Africa's nationalist party came to power adopting a raft of laws that codified the country's apartheid system that relegated the country's black to second class citizens. But it could hardly be viewed as leading the cause.
The first stirring of unease about South Africa's discriminatory policies emerged in 1946, even before the nationalists came into office, when India asked that the country's discrimination of ethnic Indians be placed on the agenda for discussion during the first session of the U.N. General Assembly.
The U.S. position dating back to the 1960s could be best described as highly ambivalent -- if not outright hostile to sanctions. Washington backed a 1960 Security Council resolution deploring the South African police's killing of 69 unarmed protesters in Sharpesville. And the John F. Kennedy administration backed a voluntary arms embargo. But U.S. administrations dating back to the 1960s opposed calls by developing nations, including African governments, for a mandatory arms embargo and economic sanctions.
In October 1962, a senior U.S. diplomat at the U.N., Francis Plimpton, vowed to "continue to oppose" the imposition of U.N. sanctions on South Africa, dismissing them as ineffective, according to a useful chronology published by The Peterson Institute for International Economics.
On August 7, 1963, the United States voted in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution recommending states cease the shipment of arms to South Africa, and Washington decided to end U.S. military sales. But days before the vote, Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued against making them mandatory. "The application of sanctions in this situation is not likely to bring about the practical result that we seek," Stevenson said at the time. "Punitive measures would only provoke intransigence and harden the existing situation..."
It would be another 14 years -- in response to the violent repression that followed the Soweto riots -- until the United States under President Jimmy Carter backed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. The U.S. cut off exports of any items to South Africa as there was reason to believe it would be used by the military. But the United States and its European allies still resisted U.N. General Assembly calls for an oil embargo on South Africa.
U.S. opposition to sanctions resurfaced following President Ronald Reagan's presidential election. Reagan's assistant secretary of state, Chester "Chet" Crocker, inaugurated the policy of "constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime, relaxing trade restrictions on the South African military. But as the Reagan administration sought to bolster relations with the South African government, civil society groups in the United States and abroad began to mobilize economic and political pressure on the Pretoria. "The international economic actions against South Africa that were most damaging were taken by private actors, not governments," Philip Levy argued in this 1999 paper.
As for Iran, Cardin said he still needs to understand why Hagel would be willing to forgo the imposition of unilateral sanctions on Iran when the international community could be expected to follow our lead if we did. "These are questions I think as a senator I have a responsibility to get his answer before making a decision on whether to support his confirmations," he said.
Fair enough. But the assumption that the world will follow is far from proven. Russia and China have made it clear they would block any new U.N. sanctions resolutions that targeted Iran's economy. The truth is that it is extremely difficult to fairly assign credit for the success or failures of sanctions in South Africa or Iraq. But it would help to have a reasonably clear-headed account of the facts.
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Syria's suffering now has an official number: 59,648.
That's the death toll that Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, assigned to the Syrian government's bloody political crackdown and the resulting civil war, over a period ranging from March 15, 2011, to November 30, 2012.
The precise number is, of course, an educated guess, but that figure has almost certainly passed the 60,000 mark in the new year, Pillay said.
The real number, according to Pillay, is probably even higher than that, given the fact that much of the Syrian carnage has played out in dark places, beyond the prying eyes of witnesses. "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking," she said Wednesday.
In fact, the number -- which is significantly higher than previous, informal U.N. estimates of about 40,000 dead -- has caught many top U.N. officials by surprise.
So, how then, did the U.N. human rights office, which has virtually no presence on the ground in Syria, come up with that figure?
They commissioned a team of statistical wizards at Benetech, a West Coast non-profit that runs a human rights program that crunches data to unlock hidden patterns of mass killing around the world.
The team was headed by the group's lead statistician, Megan Price, and included Patrick Ball -- chief scientist and vice president of the firm's human rights data analysis group -- whose computer models have been used to identify patterns of human rights violations from Guatemala to South Africa, and whose numbers aided in the prosecution of the alleged Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. (Read the excellent profile of Ball by Tina Rosenberg here.)
Applying a data mining technique called an alternating decision tree, Price, Ball and Jeff Klinger compiled basic fatality figures -- such as victims' ages, time and place of death -- from seven separate data sets, including those maintained by the Syrian government and opposition groups, including the oft-cited Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The names and vital details of 147,349 reported killings were then run through a computer program that is designed to detect duplicate references to individuals. The model was refined by a native Syrian Arab speaker who went through a sample of about 8,200 pairs of killings.
The figure was then whittled down to 59,648 "unique" deaths, though Benetech notes that it "was not able to differentiate clearly between combatants and non-combatants." The seven data sets used ranged from the Syrian government's record of 2,539 dead to more than 38,120 counted by the Violations Documentation Center, an opposition group. The larger number included in Pillay's estimate reflected the fact that the analysis was drawn from seven separate data sets.
Price, the lead statistician, said that counting the dead in a war zone is a “really hard problem,” particularly given the fact that there are many other “things that feel more pressing than figuring out mortality figures in an active conflict.”
Price objected to the characterization of her group’s numbers as estimates, saying she and her colleagues simply enumerated “documented, verifiable deaths.”
“We in fact don’t know how many people have been killed in Syria,” she told Turtle Bay. “What we know is how many deaths have been documented by these seven groups.”
Price said she recognizes that the fog of war leaves open the possibility of errors creeping into her team’s count; for instance, an automobile accident victim counted as conflict related death. Or a single victims name is spelled differently on different data sets, leading to a single death counted as two.
But she said her team sought to anticipate some of these mistakes through a variety of computer procedures with names like “fuzzy matching” and “rejection rules.” An example of fuzzy matching could involve the identification of variations on a single name –like Bob, Bobby, Rob and Robert – that would be read by the computer as the same name. Rejections rules are designed to prevent the computer from eliminating a potential fatality because they share a similar attribute—say a name – with another victim, but are not likely the same person. “Rejections rules are hard boundaries you are going to define to say those records cannot match,” Price said. “A common rejection rule is gender: any two records that have different genders are not likely the same individual.”
The decision by U.N. officials to assign a death toll for a given conflict can be highly controversial, and invariably provokes challenges by governments and sometimes other U.N. officials. In 2009, Pillay encountered intense pushback from top U.N. officials before publishing an account of the number of civilians who were slaughtered during the final months of Sri Lanka's civil war.
This time around, Pillay's deputy, Ivan Simonovic, faced little opposition when he informed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other top U.N. officials before Christmas that Pillay's figure was going to be high-- though he didn't cite a number. One U.N. official said the figure turned out to be significantly higher than most of Ban's aides had anticipated.
Rupert Colville, Pillay's spokesman, told Turtle Bay that while this is the first time that the high commissioner has commissioned Benetech to estimate a conflict death toll, she has previously offered guesstimates of death tolls in Egypt and Tunisia.
Pillay released a Syrian death toll estimate in 2011, but resisted subsequent pressure to release an update because of uncertainty about the numbers. She was persuaded by Benetech's analysis, according to Colville.
Colville acknowledged that there "is a bit of a risk" in basing the high commissioner's estimate on raw data collected by independent groups. "It's not a perfect number," he said. "But given the level of research that went into this, it's far better than what we had before."
Benetech's analysis showed a steady increase in the rate of killing -- from 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to more than 5,000 per month since July 2012. The vast majority of those killed were male -- over 76 percent. Just 7.5 percent were female. (The gender was unclear for 16.4 percent of cases.)
As for the geography of this grim toll, the largest numbers of killings were in Homs (12,560), rural Damascus (10,862), and Idlib (7,686), followed by Aleppo (6,188), Daraa (6,034) and Hama (5,080).
"While many details remain unclear, there can be no justification for the massive scale of the killing highlighted by this analysis," Pillay said. "The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, shames us all."
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For starters, the new year will see diplomatic life return to the U.N.’s glistening, landmark headquarters, as the first phase of a $2 billion renovation comes to an end. Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon moved back into his old 38th floor office, and the U.N. Security Council chamber is set to reopen for business early this year. The U.N. press corps, meanwhile, is set to follow.
But the old, sloppy business of managing the world’s crises will remain. Long-festering diplomatic and military standoffs, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Iran, will be at the top of the agenda for U.N. officials and foreign diplomats. A looming showdown with Islamic extremists, drought, and transnational crime will also tax U.N. military planners in Mali, where a U.N.-backed African peacekeeping mission is preparing for a long slog to restore stability.
In Syria, the potential collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s government has fueled fears that U.N. blue helmets will be deployed to mitigate a conflict that they cannot contain and which threatens to wreak havoc across the Middle East.
So much for good news, then. With 2012 winding down, Turtle Bay looks at the people and the crises that will define the coming year at the United Nations.
The end of 2012 has not been a particularly high point in the skyrocketing career of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Republican opposition blocked her quest to ascend to the position of secretary of state, and the U.S. envoy ended the year at the U.N. Correspondent’s Association awards dinner by saying there was no place she was happier to be than Turtle Bay. Behind her, all in good fun, an image of the U.S. State Department appeared on a giant screen.
But while Foggy Bottom is not in Rice’s immediate future, don’t count her out in 2013. Rice’s stoic withdrawal from consideration for the job -- she said a partisan battle over her nomination would distract from the country’s national security priorities -- has likely solidified her standing in the White House.
For the time being, Rice has said she will stay on at her U.N. job and her staff has told colleagues that they intend to remain in New York for several more months. If, as many anticipate, Rice winds up as President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, she may become one of the most powerful officials in that job since Henry Kissinger.
Syria has been on the backburner since last July, when Russia and China cast their third veto at the U.N. Security Council on a Western-backed resolution pressing Assad to yield power to a transitional government.
Earlier this month, rebel gains and high-level talks between the United States and Russia had raised the prospects that diplomatic efforts may return to the U.N. Security Council. Speaking from Damascus on Thursday, U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi pressed the warring parties to agree to a national unity government. "If that is not possible, the other solution could be to go to the Security Council to issue a binding resolution to all," Brahimi added. But Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov provided a downbeat account of the diplomacy, telling reporters that there was "no possibility" of convincing President Assad to stand down.
Plans for a U.N. peacekeeping operation for Syria are in the works. The U.N. peacekeeping department has been developing plans for a mission of several thousand blue helmets to enforce a possible peace deal between Assad's government and the opposition. However, many U.N. officials fear that the time for such a peace accord may have passed and that such a mission will be utterly incapable of containing the sectarian violence that may spread across the country if peace efforts collapse. "People are talking about a divided Syria being split into a number of small states like Yugoslavia," Brahimi said Sunday. "This is not what is going to happen. What will happen is Somalization -- warlords."
RED LINES AND IRAN
The West’s nuclear standoff with Iran moved to the center of the foreign policy debate in the run up to the U.S. presidential election, but it has since fallen off the radar. That may not last long.
There are renewed prospects for continued U.S.-backed talks with Iran over its nuclear program, but no clear indications that a deal is in the making. In the absence of a peace deal, Obama will face growing pressure to draw a clear line in the sand. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew his own crude red line on a cartoon drawing of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Netanyahu predicted that line would be crossed some time in spring or summer 2013 -- if Obama doesn’t solve the problem by then, the Israelis may decide their only option is to launch a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
THE DRONE WARS
The battle between America’s drone warriors and U.N. human rights advocates is primed to flare up in 2013. In October, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur for counterterrorism and human rights, announced plans to establish a new office in Geneva early next year to investigate alleged killing of civilians in drone attacks.
Emmerson’s effort could hardly be more timely. In addition to well-known drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen, the United States has expanded its drone operations in Africa: Through its airbase in Djibouti, drones are now helping combat warlords and Islamic extremists from Somalia to Mali -- and even in the Central African Republic, the chief operations center for Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army. Emmerson has been a sharp critic of the Obama administration, denouncing efforts by U.S. officials to "provide a legal justification for the drone program of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia."
In response to North Korea’s Dec. 12 launch of a ballistic missile into space, the U.N. Security Council passed a statement condemning Pyongyang’s action as a "clear violation" of past U.N. resolutions.
But a stronger response is on the horizon. In April, after North Korea conducted a failed ballistic missile test, the council threatened to take unspecified action against Pyongyang if the regime conducted another missile launch or nuclear test. It did. So now what? The council put off action until the new year, leaving it to the United States, which favors additional sanctions, and China, which opposes them, to try to reach an agreement. "I don’t know if the United States will manage to turn around Beijing on this one," one council diplomat told me, adding that Chinese U.N. envoy Li Baodong made it "pretty clear a resolution wouldn’t fly."
But some diplomats remain hopeful that the United States can still persuade China to back a tougher response. "To be honest, we don’t have a clear indication how this will play out. But I’m not so pessimistic," said another diplomat. "We need to send the correct message to the new leader of DPRK."
Just before Christmas, the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of a new African peacekeeping force to help restore democratic rule in Mali, rebuild the nation's military, and help the Malians retake a huge swath of northern territory that is now under the control of a collection of Islamic extremist groups. While it is unlikely that the force will be deployed before next September or October of next year, 2013 will mark a major turning point in U.S. and U.N. involvement in the Sahel, where a dangerous mix of drought, hunger, international crime, and terrorism threatens the stability of the region.
Last month, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognize Palestine as a "non-member observer state," setting the stage for a confrontation with Israel and Washington -- and providing the backdrop for renewed Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Fearful that the deepening dispute will deal a mortal blow to the prospects for a viable Palestinian state, European governments have been pleading with the Obama administration to announce a major new peace initiative following Israeli elections next month. At the United Nations, meanwhile, pressure is building on Israel to halt its latest settlement plans. Earlier this month, representatives from 14 of the council's 15 members, including four European powers, issued statements denouncing Israel's settlements as a threat to a two-state solution.
THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
Congolese mutineers, known as the M23 movement, routed the national army in eastern Congo in November, seizing the regional capital of Goma. That forced the Congolese government to enter into peace talks with the group's leaders, which includes Bosco Ntaganda, a man wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
But this isn’t just a domestic conflict: A U.N. panel known as the Group of Experts has issued numerous reports contending that Rwanda, and to a lesser degree Uganda, have sponsored, equipped, trained, and commanded the mutineers. Efforts to criticize Rwanda -- which will join the Security Council in January for a two-year term – have been stymied by the United States, and further attempts to pressure it to rein in its alleged Congolese proxies appear unlikely as long as Kigali holds a seat in the council. For the time being, African governments operating from the Ugandan capital of Kampala will take the lead in negotiating a peace deal between the M23 and the Congolese government.
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The U.N. Security Council today voted unanimously to establish a U.S. and European-backed African military force to rebuild Mali's troubled military, and to begin preparing it for a possible military offensive to retake control of northern Mali from a coalition of Malian separatists and Islamic extremists.
The European Union plans to send military trainers to Bamako in the coming months to begin training the Malian army, which -- disgruntled by the government's inability to counter insurgent forces -- staged a military coup in March and forced the removal of the interim leader this December.
A reconstituted and reequipped Malian army is intended to lead a campaign to conquer the north. But the supporting African force -- which is expected to be made up of several thousand troops from West Africa and the Sahel -- is unlikely to be sent to Mali before September or October, 2013.
The Security Council resolution does not specify what role the United States would play in the military campaign against al Qaeda and its allies. But it provides wide legal scope for foreign governments, including the United States, to "take all necessary measures" -- including the use of lethal force -- and provide "any necessary assistance, " including military training, equipment, intelligence and logistics, in support of the Malian fight against Islamic extremists.
The Obama administration has harbored deep misgivings about the ability of a Malian-led force to prevail in combat with al Qaeda and its allies. But today's vote ended weeks of tense negotiations between France, which was determined to authorize a new intervention force before the year's end, and the United States, which wanted to wait until the country had elected a new civilian president.
Washington agreed to co-sponsor today's resolution after securing a commitment from Paris to ensure that the United States and other Security Council members would be give another shot at reviewing the military plan before the force receives a green light for offensive operations.
Following the vote, France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud said a military attack on Islamic forces in northern Mali was not inevitable, however, and that his government still held out hope that the crisis could be resolved through political dialogue with Mali's moderate northern insurgents. The resolution, he said, "is not a declaration of war."
Long a model of African stability and democracy, Mali's civilian government has faced a series of existential threats to its rule this year, including a rebellion in northern Mali by an alliance of Malian Touareg's and al Qaeda linked groups, primarily Ansar Dine, followed by a military coup by soldiers embittered by the failure of President Amadou Toumani Toure to adequately supply troops seeking to put down the rebellion.
In recent months, Islamic militants -- including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement of United and Jihad in West Africa -- have seized control the uprising, driving out their erstwhile Touareg allies from key northern cities, including Timbuktu and Gao, imposing sharia law, and committing widespread human rights abuses. Their presence has raised concern in Washington, which is expected to help train, equip, and provide transport for the new force, known as the African-led International Support Mission, or AFISMA.
But the political turmoil in Mali has complicated Washington's role. U.S. law restricts financial assistance or military aid to Mali, because its democratic government was ousted in a coup in March, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who remains the power behind a fragile transitional government. Earlier this month, the military again showed its strength and displeasure, ordering the arrest of the interim Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, and forcing his resignation. Django Sissoko was later named to replace him.
The United States has insisted that Mali conduct new presidential elections, preferably in April, before any final decision is made to send a Malian-led African force into the north.
The new force, which will be made up primarily of troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Sahel, including Nigeria and Senegal, is intended to put military muscle behind a broader plan to restore stability and democracy in Mali.
Today's resolution urges Malian authorities to commit to a "transitional roadmap," including inclusive political talks with northern groups -- including the Touaregs -- that "cut off all ties to terrorist organizations" linked to al Qaeda. It also calls for holding elections "by April 2013 or as soon as technically possible."
The resolution aims to place a wedge between ethnic Malian rebel groups and the more hardline Islamists, threatening to impose sanctions on individuals who maintain links with al Qaeda and its associates. It also expresses its "readiness to consider appropriate measures" against Malian officers to who stand in the way of the country's transition to civilian rule.
Today's vote, said Ivory Coast's U.N. ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, speaking on behalf of ECOWAS, "is a great message of hope and solidarity" for Malians "who can now begin to believe [there will be an] end of their nightmares."
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Earlier this year, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League mediator for Syria, determined that more than 3,000 heavily-armed U.N. blue helmets would be required in Syria to enforce a peace deal he was hoping to broker between President Bashar al-Assad's government and an assortment of anti-government armed forces and opposition politicians.
The U.N. force, in Brahimi's view, could place some military muscle behind his plan to end the country's civil war by creating a national unity government to oversee the country's democratic transition. So far, the U.N. trouble-shooter's mediation efforts has stalled in the face of diplomatic deadlock between the United States and Russia and escalating fighting by warring parties in Syria.
In recent weeks, Brahimi has achieved some progress, bringing Russian and American diplomats together for talks that raised hopes that superpower pressure on the warring parties to silence their guns could lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. Brahimi is currently weighing plans to travel to the region, including a possible visit to Damascus, to continue pressing for an agreement on a national unity government, setting the stage for the deployment of such force.
"Syria needs a peaceful, political solution that brings democratic change, while preserving the fabric of Syrian society and the peaceful coexistence of its communities," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters at U.N. headquarters yesterday, during his year-end press conference. But he voiced growing gloom about the prospects for a peaceful outcome to the crisis, saying "we do not see any prospect of any end of violence or any prospect of political dialogue to start."
Internally, U.N. officials are growing increasingly skeptical about the chances for a negotiated settlement or the wisdom of sending a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Syria to restore stability. They argue that a much larger multinational force, preferably led by European governments, would stand a better chance of filling the security vacuum in Syria..But one U.N.-based official conceded there "seems to be no appetite [in European capitals] to deploy boots on the ground.".
The new thinking comes as armed opposition forces have seemed to turn the tide in the military conflict, capturing key military installations near Damascus, threatening Syrian aircraft with newly acquired shoulder-to-air rockets, and throwing into question the very survival of the Assad government.
On Tuesday, Russia sent two warships to its Mediterranean port of Tartus in Syria to ready for a possible evacuation of Russian nationals in the event Assad is overthrown, Reuters reported, citing Russia's Interfax News Agency.
While the United States and other Western powers have long favored Assad's fall from power, there is mounting concern that his violent overthrow or abdication could trigger the dissolution of the Syrian state, including the Syrian Army, generating the kind of sectarian violence and chaos that marked the messy aftermath of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's overthrow by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003.
Only a week ago, some U.N. diplomats were confident that President Assad's military setbacks would force him to begin serious negotiations on a power-sharing arrangement, increasing the prospects for a political breakthrough, according to sources. But the pace of the rebels' battlefield achievements have quickened, lessening the likelihood that they would agree to anything but total military victory.
U.N.-based diplomats worry that an abrupt collapse of his regime would unleash a destructive wave in violence, transforming regime forces into an armed insurgents, triggering reprisal killings against the country's ruling Alawites, and fueling political and sectarian strike throughout the region.
"Everybody is aware that all tides are moving against Assad; that the tide is rolling in on him," said one Security Council diplomat. "The question is when and how."
It's the how that worries Brahimi.
The central pillar of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy -- the Geneva Action plan, which enjoys the support of the United States, Russia, and other key powers -- called for a phased transition, led by a unity government made up of regime and opposition leaders, and secured by a mutually agreed ceasefire. Under the plan, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would be deployed to monitor the transition, which would culminate in Assad's formal departure sometime in 2014, and to deter potential attacks against the country's minorities, principally revenge attacks against the ruling Alawites.
"It looks like the military balance on the ground appears to be really shifting in favor of the opposition, and that we are moving toward a military victory by one side," said a senior U.N.-based source familiar with the planning. "But there will be no ceasefire, and no end to violence, which is a much worse scenario."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said that military developments are torpedoing Brahimi's carefully laid plans.
"I think it's now fairly clear that the Geneva [Action Plan] is dead," Gowan said. "And if Brahimi is going to have any credibility he is going to have show flexibility and respond to a potential collapse of the Assad regime. That is going to mean putting aside a lot of the conditions the Russians and Chinese are still clinging to and working with those who have the power on the ground. That's the ugly reality facing Brahimi."
U.N. officials are now beginning to incorporate this worst-case scenario into their planning. Until recently, U.N. peacekeeping officials had been developing contingency plans for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission with a mandate to implement a peace agreement between the warring factions.
The U.N. blue-helmet force was to be deployed in Damascus and in key cities along the Mediterranean coast, stretching as far north as the town of Latakia. They would secure a major supply route from the sea to Damascus, and deter attacks against vulnerable civilians. In contrast to previous U.N. and Arab monitoring missions, the United Nations would insist this time on access to high-tech intelligence, communications, and air and ground transport.
The U.N. has informally reached out to European governments to see whether they would be willing to commit peacekeepers to such a force, or to permit the U.N. to move European blue helmets currently stationed in southern Lebanon -- where they are monitoring the border with Israel -- to Syria.
But the U.N. has ruled out a role for the United States or key regional powers, including Turkey, with interest in Syria. The U.N. doesn't believe "it would be politically wise to have the Americans in the lead in that region," said the senior U.N.-based source. "And [the U.N.] doesn't believe it should be led by the immediate neighbors. That leaves the European Union, plus NATO, minus the Americans."
Gowan said that there may ultimately be a role for key European and regional powers, including France, Turkey, and Russia, to participate in a multinational force in Syria.
But he said that the United Nations -- which already has several thousand European peacekeepers deployed nearby in southern Lebanon -- may have to move in quickly to avert a bloodbath against the Alawites.
"The U.N.'s deployment plan could actually provide a basis for protecting the minorities," said Gowan, noting that the countries' largest concentration of Syrian Alawites resides near the coast. "But if you have a scenario with a high level of instability and you need to use pretty serious force to restore order, the United Nations cannot do that. You would need a multinational force, backed by NATO, and indirectly backed by the United States."
In New York, U.N.-based diplomats and officials worry there may be no political will in Washington and European capitals for an international intervention force, and that the job will be left to an ill-equipped force of U.N. blue helmets. "Can U.N. peacekeeping deal with this situation?" asked one official. "We all have doubts."
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Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and reportedly the favorite to succeed Hillary Clinton, asked to have her name withdrawn for consideration as the America's new secretary of state, the culmination of months of political attacks by Republican lawmakers, and intense scrutiny of her wealth, blunt diplomatic style, and relationship with African leaders.
Rice, 48, appeared destined this fall to serve as America's next top diplomat as President Barack Obama's second-term leader of Foggy Bottom. But her prospects plummeted after a trio of Republican senators -- John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) -- mounted a sustained attack on Rice.
They suggested that Rice may have willfully misled the public in a series of Sunday morning talk show interviews in which she characterized the September 11 attack on Benghazi, which led to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. nationals, as likely a spontaneous reaction to the broadcast of an anti-Islamic web video.
The account later proved untrue, and evidence soon emerged pointing to a more targeted strike on the U.S. consulate by Libyan Islamists linked to al Qaeda. But the GOP charges against her never stuck, because Rice's account was largely consistent with internal talking notes she had received from the Central Intelligence Agency and because she had left open the possibility that al Qaeda or one of its affiliates may have been involved in the attacks.
In November, Obama rallied to her defense, telling reporters at a White House press conference that Rice had "done exemplary work" at the United Nations. "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said with gusto. "For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi...to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
But McCain never relented as opposition in the Republican camp widened, drawing in Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), which made it clear that Rice was headed for a contentious Senate nomination process. Rice, meanwhile, faced a flood of more critical coverage of her tenure as a young U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the 1990s, and her role in shielding a close African ally, Paul Kagame, from scrutiny at the U.N. for his government's alleged role in backing a brutal mutiny in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I am highly honored to be considered by you for appointment as Secretary of State," Rice wrote in a letter to the president. "I am fully confident that I could serve our country ably and effectively in that role. However, if nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly -- to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."
Rice said in the letter that she looks forward to continuing to serve the president and the country as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., though rumor has it that she might be going back to the White House or National Security Council.
President Obama issued a statement from the White House praising Rice as "an extraordinary capable, patriotic and passionate public servant" who has played an "indispensable role in advancing American interests" at the United Nations.
"While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks," said the statement, "her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admiral commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first."
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Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a reputation for diplomatic sparring. Her battles with the Russian envoy, Vitaly Churkin, and the French ambassador, Gerard Araud, have been epic.
But Rice has generally held her punches in negotiations with Li Baodong, China's reserved, formal, U.N. envoy -- a man who has shown little taste for the diplomatic joust.
That is, until now. Early today, the big power envoys squared off in a closed-door Security Council session over competing views about how the 15-nation body should react to North Korea's missile launch.
Rice urged the Security Council to swiftly respond to North Korea's surprise launch of a satellite (via a ballistic missile) with a statement condemning Pyongyang's action as a violation of U.N. resolutions and characterizing it as a provocative act that "undermines regional stability."
Li pushed back, saying that there was no need to condemn North Korea, and that its test constituted no threat to regional stability.
"That's ridiculous," Rice shot back, according to one of three council diplomats who described the encounter.
"Ridiculous?" a visibly angered Li responded through an interpreter. "You better watch your language."
"Well, it's in the Oxford dictionary, and Churkin -- if he were in the room -- he would know how to take it," retorted Rice.
The reference to Oxford dictionary refers to Churkin's riposte, in December 2011, to a public broadside by Rice, who charged him with making "bogus claims" about alleged NATO war crimes in Libya to divert attention from charges of war crimes against its Syrian ally.
"This is not an issue that can be drowned out by expletives. You might recall the words one could hear: bombast and bogus claims, cheap stunt, duplicitous, redundant, superfluous, stunt," said Churkin to Rice. "Oh, you know, you cannot beat a Stanford education, can you?" said Churkin, mocking Rice's alma mater. Rice, a former Rhodes scholar, later noted that she also went to Oxford.
Today, however, Li countered that Rice's remarks were consistent with an American foreign policy approach that seeks to impose its will on other states.
In the end, however, Rice and her council allies were able to secure a clear condemnation of Pyongyang, though they dropped the provision suggesting the test has undermined regional stability. A Security Council statement condemned the missile launch, calling it a "clear violation" of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning ballistic missile tests. The council took note that it threatened last April to take action against North Korea if it launched further tests, and it vowed to "continue consultations on an appropriate response."
The United States, working with Japan and South Korea, is expected to lead efforts in the coming weeks to forge a tougher council reaction, preferably a resolution imposing sanctions. But they are expected to encounter tough resistance from China, which indicated it was not prepared to support a confrontational resolution penalizing Pyongyang, according to council diplomats.
And the man Rice will have to persuade to impose the council's will on North Korea is her new sparring partner, Li Baodong.
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Key U.N. powers said today that Mali's military's arrest and ouster of the country's transitional leader, Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra, would not deter the U.N. Security Council from forging ahead with plans to intervene in Mali to confront Islamists militants in the north of the country. But it did little to paper over differences between the United States and France on how to get the job done.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, offered a decidedly uncharitable assessment of a French- and African-backed plan to retake control of northern Mali from a coalition of Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda. "It's crap," the U.S. envoy told a gathering of U.N.-based officials, according to one of the officials. Rice's office declined to comment.
The American envoy's assessment reflected deep misgivings that the Malian army, supported by a Nigerian-led coalition of 3,300 troops from 15 Western African countries has the manpower or the skills required to contend with a battle-tested insurgency with experience fighting in the Sahel's unforgiving desert. Rice's candor also deals a setback to a long, drawn-out effort by France and West African countries to secure U.N. Security Council mandate for a regional intervention force in Mali.
The United States is not alone in having misgivings. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently issued a report that argued against an immediate military intervention in Mali, saying the international community should devote its attention to stitching together a political agreement among Mali's squabbling groups, setting force aside as a "last resort." Herve Ladsous, the head of the U.N.'s peacekeeping department and one of the U.N.'s few advocates of military intervention, said recently that even if the intervention plan is approved it would take until September or October, 2013, for the international force to be deployed.
"We should not forget that in any military intervention, even when successful, tens of thousands more people are likely to become displaced both inside the country and across borders," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told the Security Council on Monday. "Newly arriving refugees in the neighboring countries are increasingly citing the prospect of military intervention as one of the reasons that pushed them to flee."
Despite these concerns -- and Rice's frank remark -- the United States supports military action in Mali to confront Islamist militants. Just not yet. And not without a role for some of America's most important counterterrorism allies (principally Algeria) that are not members of the West African peacekeeping coalition, and which have so far proven reluctant to sign on to a risky fight with Mali's Islamists that could provoke the group's allies inside Algeria.
The predicament has contributed to the impression of American policymaking as confused in confronting the spread of terrorism and militant Islam in Mali, where insurgents have benefited from an influx of weapons from Libya in the wake of Muammar al-Qaddafi's downfall. But some officials believe the muddled picture is more a reflection of the fact that America's counterinsurgency strategy in the region remains a work in progress.
The Obama administration is seeking broader congressional support for counterterrorism operations in Mali and other northern African countries, while U.S. military planners have been pressing Mali's neighbors with desert fighting experience, including Algeria, Chad, and Mauritania, to participate in military action. William Burns, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, traveled to Algiers over the weekend to prod the government into deepening its role in Mali.
But American diplomats in New York have been urging the Security Council to go slowly, putting off a foreign campaign to confront the Islamists until a new president is elected.
Washington favors what it calls a "two-step authorization" of military force. The first step would involve the swift approval of a resolution authorizing the deployment of an African force to train the Malian army, which put up virtually no resistance to the Islamists, and would express an intention to conduct offensive operations in the north, but only if it is satisfied with a refined military plan -- known as a concept of operations -- that would be due to the council within 45 days. A second resolution, according to the U.S. plan, would authorize offensive operations in northern Mali, as well as a follow-up effort to stabilize a reconquered northern Mali. It remains unclear what military role the United States would play in the counterterrorism operation.
America's diplomatic caution reflects misgivings about the African military plan, questions about who will participate in -- and pay for -- the mission. But it is also stems from American legal constraints. The United States is prohibited by law from providing financial support to Mali's government because the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure was toppled in a military coup in March. Thus it is pressing Mali's interim government to hold presidential elections, initially scheduled for April 2013, before sending foreign armies into Mali to confront the Islamists.
"Mali needs now more than ever a strong democratic government to restore its democratic tradition and provide the strong leadership necessary to negotiate a political agreement with northern rebels, reform its security sector, and lead a military intervention in the north to restore and maintain Mali's territorial integrity," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said last week.
At the Security Council on Monday, Rice said the effort to confront al Qaeda in Mali will require a broader effort by governments in the region to combat transitional crime, including drug trafficking, and the proliferation of terror organizations. "The rise of violent extremism and organized crime across the region is aggravating the situation in Mali," she told the council.
Rice said there is a need to pursue a multifaceted strategy, including political, humanitarian, environmental, and military pieces, to address the crisis. "Given Mali's delicate situation, we must be careful to address the crises in Mali without further destabilizing the entire region," she said. "Any military intervention in Mali must thus be designed to minimize the operation's humanitarian impact and the impact on human rights." But she provided few insights into what role Washington would play in support of the counterinsurgency operation in Mali.
France agrees that the U.N. needs to pursue a coordinated strategy that addresses many of the country's political, humanitarian, and environmental needs. But it also believes that yesterday's ouster of Prime Minister Diarra only highlights the need for swift military action. "These developments underline the need for the rapid deployment of an African stabilization force," France's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Philippe Lalliot, told reporters on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
The crisis in Mali underscores the rising threat of anti-Western Islamic militancy in North Africa and the Sahel. But it also marks the clearest evidence of blowback from the U.S.-backed military campaign that toppled Qaddafi.
Early this year, Touareg separatists -- many of whom served as Qaddafi's mercenaries -- fighting under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, struck an alliance with Islamist groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ansar al-Dine, to fulfill their long-held dream of establishing an independent Touareg nation. Backed by an influx of weapons from the Libyan war, they quickly defeated the national army, triggering a military coup in the capital, Bamako, by younger officers angered that the government had not supplied them with enough military equipment to meet the fight in the north. But the Touaregs were quickly forced out of the way by their Islamist allies, who had little interest in securing Touareg independence.
The movement now claims control of more than half of the country's territory, including the key northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. U.N. and African mediators are trying to persuade more moderate factions to break ranks with militants linked to al Qaeda. While there have been some statements, U.N. diplomats say it is too early to say whether those efforts are succeeding or not.
Traore Rokiatou Guikine, Mali's minister for African integration, warned the U.N. Security Council last week that foreign Islamists are taking advantage of the security vacuum in northern Mali to consolidate their gains. "The deployment of the force is urgent," she said. "Terrorists have stepped up their activities and are seeking reinforcements to carry out jihad from Mali. Mali is on the way to becoming a breeding ground for terrorists."
The government in Bamako has received firm backing from France, South Africa, India, and other council members for a military response. "The situation in Mali requires an urgent response from the international community," South Africa's U.N. envoy Baso Sangqu said on Monday. "If left unchecked, the situation in the Sahel threatens to spread and affect the countries in the region and beyond, and pose a threat to international peace and security," said Sangqu.
France, meanwhile, favors the adoption of a single Security Council resolution authorizing a foreign intervention force by Christmas, although it could be many months before it is ever sent to Mali.
The French favor what they call a "two track" approach -- promoting a democratic political transition while training Malian security forces to conduct offensive military operations. Unlike the Americans, however, French officials believe it is illogical for the military operations to be put off until after Mali's presidential election, particularly as Malians living in territory seized by the Islamists would not be able to vote. "Do you think that al Qaeda will be securing voting booths for a fair election?" asked one Security Council diplomat.
And with Diarra now removed from office by the military officers who toppled his predeccesor, the country's political future is now even murkier.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.