U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will appeal to the Security Council to authorize "as soon as possible" the deployment of a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria as the country witnessed a rare pause in violence, according to a statement by special emissary Kofi Annan. But Ban cautioned that the cease-fire remained extremely "fragile" and could unravel in the face of a single gunshot.
"I am encouraged by reports that the situation in Syria is relatively quiet and that the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding," Annan said in a statement. "Syria is apparently experiencing a rare moment of calm on the ground. This is bringing much-needed relief and hope to the Syrian people who have suffered so much for so long in this brutal conflict. This must now be sustained."
Annan, a former U.N. secretary general who serves as the joint representative for the United Nations and the Arab League, said that he hoped the swift deployment of a U.N. mission would "allow us to move quickly to launch a serious political dialogue that will address the concerns and aspirations of the Syrian people."
Today's developments elicited a rare expression of optimism among U.N. diplomats who have been frustrated by a pattern of unfulfilled promises by President Bashar al-Assad. They remained skeptical about the Syrian government's commitment to abide by the cease-fire. "The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes, since many promises previously made by the government of Syria have not been kept," Ban told reporters in Geneva.
The Syrian government agreed on April 1 to endorse Annan's six-point peace plan, which called on the Syrian government to halt its use of heavy weapons by April 10, and to begin withdrawing its heavy weapons from urban centers. But Syria intensified its armed assault against several restive cities during the past week, raising concern that the Annan peace plan was on life support.
Bassma Kodmani, spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, meanwhile, said that the Syria had only "partially observed" the ceasefire, according to Reuters. "There is no evidence of significant withdrawal." But the vague language of Annan's cease-fire deal, which has no deadline for Syria to complete the withdrawal of government forces, appeared to grant Syria considerable leeway to maintain a military presence in towns linked to the opposition.
Still, Annan believes today's pause in fighting provides an opportunity to get a U.N. mission into the country to help reinforce the cease-fire, and potentially lead to the implementation of the other elements of the peace plan, including political talks, the release of political prisoners, access for humanitarian aid workers and journalists, and the right to hold peaceful demonstrations. Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood has been in Damascus for the past week planning the terms of a monitoring mission consisting of about 250 international monitors, mostly recruited from existing U.N. missions in neighboring countries.
Mood told Norway's NTB news agency, according to Reuters, that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects for a successful mission. But he cautioned that "Both sides are plagued by a very high degree of mutual suspicion. It's terribly difficult to cross that abyss."
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As the late Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces prepared to crush the Libyan uprising last summer in Benghazi, Britain, France, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and other allies moved quickly to reinforce the beleaguered rebel forces.
With military supplies, training, advice -- and of course the backing of NATO war planes -- this coalition of governments provided critical support to change the course of the conflict, ultimately leading to Qaddafi's downfall.
The U.N. Security Council's arms embargo was primarily intended to constrain Qaddafi's capacity to use its massive oil wealth to import new stocks of weapons and foreign mercenaries to help put down the rebellion. But it also placed restraints on the supply of weapons to the rebels, prompting the Security Council to later introduce an exemption -- providing significant cover for governments seeking to arm the rebels.
A new report by a U.N. panel of experts responsible for monitoring the arms embargo in Libya sought to itemize a list of military supplies -- everything from sandbags to shouldered propelled rockets -- that flowed into Libya after the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Libya in February 2011. The list, however, is incomplete because NATO and some of the insurgents' chief military backers, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have refused to provide a full account of their contributions.
The report identified numerous attempts by the Qaddafi regime "to secure arms deals and use mercenaries from neighboring countries," citing reports in the Globe and Mail about a July 2011 visit to Beijing by Libyan officials seeking to purchase military supplies from three Chinese arms manufacturers. (China denied that the talks led to any deals.) The panel also cited reports that much of Libya's military capacity had been reconstituted after 2004, following years of Western and U.N. sanctions, with the aid of Western European countries and ex-Soviet states (The panel also noted that is conducting an ongoing investigation into Qaddafi's use of mercenaries, adding that so far it had found "no conclusive evidence.")
But the 78-page report provides insights into how the international community combined diplomatic pressure, military airpower, and clandestine arms deliveries, to topple a regime. It would not be surprising if some of those countries considering backing the Syrian campaign to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad in Syria are drawing from the same playbook.
The United States
Though U.S. airpower proved decisive in crippling Qaddafi's defenses, the United States maintains that it provided only non-lethal military support to the rebels. The report notes that on February 6, the United States provided the panel with a list of its contributions, including 8,000 uniforms, 8,000 boots, 5,825 load-bearing vests, 2,850 bullet proof vests, 1,975 military helmets, and "items for defensive positions (sandbags, Hescos...)."
The Italian government notified the panel on February 14 that it supplied 10 military trainers, 10,000 uniforms, 5,400 helmets and 2,800 leather boots.
On February 9, the United Kingdom informed the panel that it supplies the rebels with 6,000 sets of body armor and no more than 20 military personnel. The British action, according to the report, was intended to "provide a military assistance team to the Libyan authorities for the purpose of providing operational assistance, training and mentoring on security issues, including reform of the armed services, counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency."
In April 2011, the French government notified the United Nations that it had sent a small team of military advisors to Libya to provide the National Transitional Council with "support and advice on ways to organize its internal structure, manage its resources and improve its communications." In June, it went further, notifying the UN that it had "airdropped self-defence weapons for the civilian populations that had been victims of attacks by Libyan armed forces." The panel's report contains no detailed list of these contributions as the French asked it to keep the details confidential.
The panel said that it has obtained information that several flights operating from Tirana, Albania, transported military materiel to Benghazi over a three day period in September, 2011. The case remains under investigation.
One of the more tantalizing revelations in the panel report is the suggestion that Darfuri rebel groups, including members of the Zaghawa tribe and fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement, may have backed Qaddafi's counterinsurgency campaign. The panel said that while it was not able to "definitely corroborate" numerous reports of the military role in the conflict, ‘the accumulative strength of intelligence gives substantial credibility to these findings." No to be outdone, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, extended overflight rights over Sudanese territory to NATO, according to senior U.N. diplomats, and allegedly supplied arms to the insurgents, according to the panel. The panel cited claims by the Benghazi rebel defense ministry that Sudan provided "small arms and light weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades," and transported other supplies to Bengazhi on two Ilyushin-76 aircraft. "According to media reports, on 26 October, the President of the Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, gave a speech in Kasala in which he acknowledged weapons deliveries from the Sudan to Libya and that the weapons had reached revolutionaries in Misratah, Al-Jabal Al-Gharabi and Zawiya." The Sudanese government did not reply to the panel's request for information.
In March 2011, Qatar notified the United Nations that it would participate in NATO enforcement of the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone over Libya, contributing "a number of military aircraft, military transport aircraft and helicopters." Qatar categorically denied media reports that "it had supplied the revolutionaries with arms and ammunition," saying only that it had "sent a limited number of military personnel to provide military consultations to the revolutionaries, defend Libyan civilians and protect aid convoys." The only weapons and ammunition it had furnished was for the use of Qatari military advisors in self-defense.
But the Qatari contention had one big hole in it. In July, 2011, a Swiss television station discovered spent Swiss ammunition used by the Libyan revolutionaries. The Swiss ammo had been exported to the Qatar armed forces in 2009 by a Swiss arms company, FGS Frex, and made its way to Libya. Confronted by Swiss authorities, who noted that Qatar was prohibited from re-exporting the ammunition, the Qatari ambassador appeared to have confirmed its role in the supply of ammunition. "The ambassador of Qatar explained to the Swiss representatives that the ‘transfer of the aforementioned ammunition to the Libyan opposition was a misadventure in the course of his country's support of the NATO operation in Libya.' He reassured the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs that ‘Qatar took the appropriate measures to prevent similar errors in the future.'"
The United Arab Emirates
The panel provided few details about alleged arms transfers by the United Arab Emirates, partly because it is conducting an ongoing investigation into the matter, and partly because the Gulf state refused to provide the panel with a list of its contributions. On March 25, "the United Arab Emirates notified the [UN] Secretary General that it would participate, within the framework of the international coalition, by providing military aircraft. No notification was given regarding transfers of weapons or ammunition or provision of military personnel." The panel visited the UAE to inquire about its role in arming and advising the Libyan insurgents. The government insisted that it had acted in conformity with UN resolutions and under the umbrella of the NATO operation" to protect civilians. "They did not provide more precise information and said that NATO would be in a better position to answer those questions."
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization's role in Libya was decisive in crippling Qaddafi's military defenses and providing support for insurgent offensive operations. While its air campaign is not the subject of the panel's inquiry, the report notes that it wrote to NATO "asking it to provide a detailed list of military materiel, including weapons and ammunition, sent by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates or any other country that participated in the NATO operation and information regarding the number and roles of military personnel sent by those countries to Libya since the imposition of the embargo. While NATO acknowledged the receipt of the panel's request for information on 25 January 2012, no answer has been provided to date."
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Israeli officials have long expressed deep skepticism about the impact of international sanctions alone in compelling Iran's leadership to abandon what it sees as its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, told a group of reporters on Friday at the Israeli mission to the United Nations, that he believes Tehran is as committed as ever to a nuclear weapon.
But he also credited international sanctions, particularly a set of financial measures imposed by the United States and the European Union, with exacting a steep enough price that it may force Tehran to change its behavior. Prosor cited a recent decision by the Belgium-based Society of World Wide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, or Swift, blocking dozens of Iranian firms from doing business as the latest evidence the sanctions are having an impact.
"I think the international community at this stage has really moved forward and have made at least clear to Tehran that there is a certain price tag for continuing" its pursuit of nuclear weapons, he said. "The decision on SWIFT, the issue of the sanctions by the EU, are important and have an effect on Iran...I do see really a movement on the international stage, especially on the economic side...It's much more effective than people think and it might change, hopefully it might change behavior patterns if we continue with it."
Prosor made the remarks at a press breakfast with more than a dozen international reporters at the Israeli mission, providing a hint that Israel may be stepping away from its campaign to rally support for military strikes against Iran. He also used the meeting to underscore anti-Israeli bias at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and highlight the need for humanitarian assistance in Syria.
Asked to comment on a recent report in Foreign Policy that Israel had reached an agreement with Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, to use its airbases in the event of a possible air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. "I'm happy to say I don't know. That happens to me once in while but the answer is I just don't know. I just don't know,"
Prosor said that his government's chief priority in neighboring Syria, where a government crackdown on protesters entered its second year, "is to focus on anything that could be done in order to relieve and help on the humanitarian side these people in Syria who are being slaughtered." But Prosor declined to respond to a question on what kind of government Israel would prefer to see in Syria.
"Israeli politicians don't say anything on Syria and it is nor coincidental that they don't speak," he said. "Anything we would say on this will be used and abused against the people that I think we want to help. Having said that...I want to formally say clearly here that Bashar Assad does not have the moral authority to lead his people."
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As Kofi Annan pursues a cease-fire to end the violence in Syria, the U.N.'s peacekeeping department has been developing plans for a mission of about 250 unarmed, international observers to monitor the peace and hopefully to buy some time for political talks to forge a lasting settlement.
But what can U.N. monitors achieve in a country like Syria, where a recent experiment involving roughly 150 poorly equipped, ill-trained Arab League monitors ended in failure? Observers say there are few precedents for the deployment of U.N. observers in the middle of an internal conflict, particularly one like Syria where the armed opposition does not operate under a single chain of command.
The experience of the Arab League monitors, who withdrew in January, provides some clues as to the challenges. In the initial stages of that observation mission, Syria erected a series of bureaucratic hurdles, preventing the outside observers from importing their own communications equipment and limiting their travel within the country.
Even if U.N. observers are able to overcome these hurdles, how would a small group of unarmed foreign observers ensure their independence from government security forces and its own protection from spoilers, including a resurgent al Qaeda?
The British government has begun exploring a series of ideas with the U.N. peacekeeping department about the shape of the new mission, which would likely draw staff from existing U.N. missions in the Middle East, including the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, the U.N. Truce Supervision Force, and the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon.
A small team of U.N. peacekeeping planners are headed to Damascus in the coming days to begin preliminary discussions with the government, although a date has not been set.
U.N. officials and outside observers say they expect a long protracted negotiation with the Syrian government over the mission's terms. Both Annan, a former U.N. peacekeeping chief, and one of his principle deputies, Jean-Marie Guehenno, who succeeded Annan as the U.N.'s top peacekeeping official, know better than most the perils of deploying U.N. missions that lack resources or a firm enough mandate to succeed.
In Geneva, Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, meanwhile, expressed concern that there has been no halt to the fighting in Syria, and called on Assad to take the first step. "We expect him to implement this plan immediately," Fawzi told reporters, according to the Associated Press. "Clearly, we have not seen a cessation of hostilities and this is of great concern."
"The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side," Fawzi added. "We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith.... The deadline is now."
Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, said that there will be an "unstoppable pressure" from key powers to deploy foreign monitors in order to show that the world is responding to the violence.
"It will be really tempting to get some observers into the country and say this is a sign of progress. I would urge caution because you could be setting yourself up for another failure," Gowan said. "The Syrians are well placed to manipulate the monitors as they come in."
The U.N. has a long history of deploying observer missions, but they have traditionally been used to monitor cease-fire agreements, or border disputes between states, not internal conflicts. However, there are some precedents.
In 1998, Richard Holbrooke, President Bill Clinton's chief Balkans envoy, negotiated an agreement with the Serbs to deploy the Kosovo Verification Mission in Kosovo, a team of 1,400 observers that enjoyed considerable freedom to monitor violence in the former Serb territory. But the mission, which was established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was unable to stem the violence, and was withdrawn the following year when NATO decided to bomb Serbia into compliance. In 2007, the U.N. sent about 180 unarmed U.N. monitors to Nepal, to ensure that Maoist insurgents remained in a set of military cantonments through the country's election. And last year, the U.N. planned to send a couple of hundred monitors to Libya, to support efforts to broker a cease-fire between the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi and the insurgents. The plan was ditched after Qaddafi's government collapsed last fall.
Annan is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on Monday, April 2, by video conference from Geneva on the latest diplomatic development on Syria, and may broach discussions of a monitoring mission. Security Council members say that a new monitoring mission will require the adoption of a new Security Council resolution, but that no one is expected to table one until receiving a request from Annan.
In the meantime, council diplomats have been putting a series of questions on the mandate of a new mission before Annan and the U.N. peacekeeping department. Most importantly, European officials are seeking assurance that U.N. monitors are used to bolster a political transition, not simply to enforce a stand off that favors the Syrian government.
Gowan offers his own recommendations. For a new monitoring mission in Syria to be a success, six basic operational criteria must be fulfilled:
1. Freedom of movement: The Arab League observer mission was under constant supervision by Syrian security personnel, and could not travel to trouble-spots without their minders. To have even minimal credibility, the U.N. mission would need to be able to make monitoring visits on their own initiative. The team would need their own vehicles (probably armored 4x4s) and independent close-protection officers. The Syrian authorities will argue that the observers should notify them in advance of trips for safety's sake. Nonetheless, the U.N, should insist on the right on to make spot-checks with 2-3 hours notice at most.
2. A secure HQ and communications: The Arab observers were headquartered in a hotel, and had use Syrian communications systems to contact the Arab League in Cairo, inevitably compromising their reporting. A credible U.N. mission would need an independent base -- off-limits to Syrian authorities -- and the ability to send encrypted communications to New York. A neutral government such as Switzerland could provide military communications experts to support the mission. It might not take long for the Syrians (with Russian and Iranian help) to crack the codes, but this would at least signal the observers' autonomy.
3. Access to Syrian artillery and armor: The use of big guns and tanks against civilians has been a defining dimension of the conflict. While the Arab observers were meant to oversee the removal of heavy weapons from urban areas, the Syrian Army only made cosmetic withdrawals. Annan and the Security Council have now called for the "end the use of heavy weapons in population centers, and [to] begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers." U.N. monitors would need to prioritize tracking artillery and armored units, possibly even embedding personnel in their bases away from cities.
4. Satellites and drones: Heavy weapons can also be tracked by drones and satellites -- which the United States has done already -- and the observer mission should make use of these sources. Damascus will object to the U.N. turning to the United States for aerial or satellite intelligence, but the U.N. can get imagery from other sources and has its own satellite imagery analysts. The EU also has a satellite center that could be put at the U.N.'s disposal, and Belgium has a small fleet of drones that it has previously deployed in European peace operations.
5. Special investigators: While "observing" and "monitoring" sound like passive activities, the U.N. could also deploy investigative teams to gain more detailed information on specific incidents -- including bombings and raids by rebel forces. While it's very hard to gather reliable evidence in war zones, small teams of forensic and ballistics specialists may be able to piece together basic facts on new massacres. Although not much of a deterrent in the short term, the presence of these teams may make it possible to hold killers from both sides accountable later, as drawn-out prosecutions in the Balkans have shown.
6. An emergency exit strategy: However effectively the U.N. monitors might perform, there will still be a risk that the situation in Syria will deteriorate again -- and either the government or opposition could try to seize some observers as hostages. There will need to be a military plan to get the monitors out at short notice. Russia, with its base at Tartus, is best-placed to arrange such a plan and could offer to do so as a sign of goodwill towards Kofi Annan. The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon and the Turkish armed forces -- and possibly Britain, which has forces stationed nearby in Cyprus -- could lend a helping hand.
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Kofi Annan today announced a rare breakthrough in his efforts to halt the bloodshed in Syria, saying that President Bashar al-Assad had endorsed his six-point diplomatic plan calling for an immediate cease-fire, access for international aid workers, and the start of political talks leading to a multiparty democracy.
But there was a sense among observers that we've been here before.
Last November, the Syrian government signed a deal with the Arab League to withdraw its military forces from besieged towns and to accept a "road map" for political reform. But Assad never implemented the pact. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, has become so weary of Assad's promises to rein in his security forces that he hasn't even bothered to call him in several months. "He made all these promises," Ban told reporters last September, "but these promises have become now broken promises."
Indeed, many Syria observers believe Assad is seeking to bog down Annan and his team of mediators in a fruitless diplomatic process that will provide him with political cover to continue his military campaign to crush the opposition. Even today, the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that monitors the violence, said 20 people had died by mid afternoon, according to a report in the New York Times, and fighting was reported along the Lebanese border.
"Assad has everything to gain from accepting the Annan initiative," said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "The president is looking for a way to end the uprising without stepping down, or turning power over to the revolutions. The new U.N. peace plan does not insist on having Assad handing over power, which is why Assad finds it acceptable.... He can play along with this because ultimately he needs to slow down the stampede towards greater and greater sanctions and [secure international] pressure on the opposition not to send weapons inside Syria."
Despite the grim assessment, many observers say that the diplomatic campaign to rein in President Assad has been gaining strength, driven in part by waning interest in the West for military intervention in Syria.
Russia and China, Syria's strongest defenders at the United Nations, have thrown their political weight behind Annan's peace initiative, prompting Assad to commit to a deal he had rejected two weeks ago.
The fragmented Syrian opposition attracted hundreds of anti-Assad representatives, including the exiled Muslim Brotherhood, to a meeting in Istanbul. Turkey and Norway, meanwhile, have shuttered their embassies in Damascus, furthering the country's diplomatic isolation.
"I do think conditions for diplomacy at the international level are better than last time," said Marc Lynch, a fellow Foreign Policy blogger and Middle East scholar at George Washington University. "Am I optimistic? No. My best guess is that Assad will try to play this the same way he played the Arab League plan," he said. But he "may find himself with less room for maneuver."
Lynch and other observers say that President Assad's standing -- which has been boosted by a series of military victories against the opposition -- risks the prospect of being weakened through a political process. "Assad is clearly winning at the military level," Lynch said. But his military gains, he added are "empty tactical victories. At a broader level, all signs say to me he is losing control, losing legitimacy."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, writes today in World Politics Review that the renewed push for a diplomatic outcome reflects a realization by "all the main players in the debate, that their disputes, which had been poisonous since mid-2011, were spiraling out of control." But Gowan also voiced concern that it may be too late for Annan's plan to succeed.
Russia and China, which have seen their standing in the region suffer from repeated vetoes in the Security Council, saw Annan's diplomatic overture as a way out of their isolation. And Western powers, reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria if diplomacy fails, are showing renewed interest in promoting a U.N. diplomatic effort to end the crisis.
But Western diplomats also struck a cautious note. "The Assad regime's acceptance of joint United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan's six point plan would represent a significant first step towards bringing an end to the violence and the bloodshed, but only if it is genuinely and seriously meant," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after the announcement. "This has not been the case with previous commitments the regime has made. The key will be concrete implementation that brings a cessation of all hostilities and leads to a genuine political transition accompanied by freedom of access for humanitarian assistance and the media, and the release of political prisoners. We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its practical actions not by its often empty words."
Landis remained even more doubtful about the prospects for a peaceful outcome, saying the opposition has failed to present a viable alternative to the regime while the ongoing crisis is bringing greater economic hardship to ordinary Syrians.
"I see Syrians starving to death and Assad remaining in power for a long time," he said. "Even if he can destroy the opposition, he can't put Syria back together again. But the country will ultimately collapse in disorder."
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Kofi Annan today raised the prospect of President Bashar al-Assad's stepping down as part of a final peace deal, marking the first time the international envoy on Syria has hinted that his mediation efforts might lead to a change in leadership.
But there were no signs that Assad was prepared to yield to international pressure to step aside or to even halt a military campaign that drew fresh claims by opposition activists that government forces continue to shell parts of the city of Homs.
Asked by a reporter in Moscow whether Assad should resign, Annan, who is serving as the joint envoy on Syria for the Arab League and the United Nations, said: "That is one of the issues the Syrians will have to decide. Our effort is to help the Syrians come to the table and find a way out of all this. It may in the end come to that, but it's not up to me, it's up to the Syrians."
So far, Annan has not been able to secure agreements from either the Syrian government or the armed opposition to accept a U.N. supervised cease-fire agreement. But he held high-level meeting with top officials from Russia, including President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend, and headed out today for a visit to Beijing for meetings with top Chinese officials tomorrow, part of a last ditch effort to persuade Assad to rein in his security forces and negotiate a political settlement with the opposition.
"Time is of the essence. This cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely," he told reporters at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. "The message I would also like to put out today is that the transitional winds blowing today cannot be easily resisted, or cannot be resisted for long. The only way to deal with this is through reform, through change that respects democratic principles, individual dignity, the rule of law and human rights."
Annan is seeking to enlist the support of top Russian and Chinese leaders in ratcheting pressure on the Syrian leader to halt a year-long crackdown on anti-government demonstrators that has left more than 8,000 people dead and delivered the country to the early phases of a civil war.
Annan said he was confident that Russia, which has been accused by the United States and other Western partners of abetting President Assad, is acting in good faith to achieve a peaceful outcome to the crisis. "They are prepared ... to work with me not only in supporting the approach and the plans I've put on the table but also in encouraging the parties to move in the same direction ... to settle this issue peacefully."
"I think they do have influence," he added, "and they have indicated they will use that influence to help me constructively."
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After months of discord, the U.N. Security Council last week coalesced around a diplomatic initiative led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, presenting a rare show of unity in the face of President Bashar al-Assad's bloody repression of anti-government protesters.
But has the deal brought the world any closer to a democratic future under a leader that enjoys popular support? A 6-point political settlement, authored by Annan and endorsed this week by the U.N. Security Council, is ambiguous about the fate of President Assad.
And it has done little to change the realities on the ground, where the Syrian government has continued to secure military gains against an armed opposition that is running desperately low on ammunition.
"All the evidence ... points to Assad thinking basically that there is a military solution to this crisis, that given time and space he can crush the dissent," said one council diplomat. "We don't buy that. We think they squash it in one place, as they did recently in Homs, it pops up somewhere else, as we saw in Damascus."
But the official said that Assad's continuing defiance could provide a "hook" to bring the matter back before the Security Council, where it can adopt tougher measures against the regime.
The U.N. Security Council members, including U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, have trumpeted the council's latest statement as a modest step that offers the best hope of ending the violence in Syria, opening the floodgates for humanitarian assistance and starting talks on a political transition, something that both sides have so far refused to do.
But for many outside observers the promise of sterner action remains uncertain, particularly given veto-wielding Russia's support for Assad, and it may too late to alter the course of development through diplomacy.
"This is a plan which, if it had been put on the table six weeks ago, would have offered Assad away out for the regime. But it has much less reason to bargain at a time where the regime is scoring successive military victories," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center for International Cooperation. "The problem is that the Syrian military is continuing to create facts on the ground and Annan and the Security Council are inevitably struggling to keep up."
The Washington Post editorial page put it more bluntly on March 22: Annan's initiative, it reasoned, "will likely provide time and cover for the regime of Bashar al-Assad to continue using thanks and artillery to assault Syrian cities and indiscriminately kill civilians. That's exactly what the regime was doing Thursday -- pounding the city of Hama, where at least 20 people have been reported killed in army attacks in the past two days."
U.N. officials are convinced that Assad cannot end the uprising through military means, and that he will ultimately need to bargain the terms of his political future. "If he thinks he can weather this storm...he [has made] a serious misjudgment," Ban Ki-moon recently told a small group of reporters over lunch. "He cannot continue like this. He has gone too deep, too far."
In the meantime, Annan has urged the armed opposition's foreign sympathizers, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not to supply anti-government forces with weapons and other military supplies. Annan urged Russian President Dmitry Medvedev over the weekend to press Assad to accept his peace proposal, and reportedly met with top Chinese officials in Beijing on Sunday to secure a similar commitment.
Annan told the Security Council earlier this month that Assad's initial response to his diplomatic entreaties have been "disappointing." But he placed hope that a united Security Council could turn the diplomatic tide.
"The stronger and clearer the message you can collectively send," he told the council in a closed door briefing on March 16, "the better the chance that we can begin to shift the worrying dynamics of the conflict."
Engineering such a change may be complicated by Assad's own calculation of the personal dangers of peace. "There are risks for him in that he may fear he will lose on the negotiating table what he through fighting," said Gowan. "He may have concluded it is simply best to create a military fait accompli."
"The argument one hears advanced is that the damage to his political base has been so great he cannot survive long in office even if he wins on the battlefield," Gowan added. "Where as long as the fighting continues he has the upper hand, and so will never back down."
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A key member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into alleged crimes in Syria resigned today, citing Syria's ongoing refusal to permit the team into the country to carry out its investigations.
Yakin Ertuk, a Turkish national who serves as one of the commission's three members, made the announcement in a meeting in New York with non-government organizations, according to a source who attended the meeting.
“I resigned today from the Commission of Inquiry because of Syria’s refusal to grant the Commission access. This is one of the main obstacles that hampered the work of the Commission. Without access to Syria the work of the commission is very difficult.”
The move comes as the U.N. Human Rights Council decided today to extend the commission's inquiry, allowing it to continue its investigation at least through September. The commission has largely relied on human rights groups, opposition elements, and the testimony of Syrian refugees who fled the violence, primarily into Jordan and Turkey.
The three-member commission, chaired by a Brazilian diplomat and legal scholar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, traveled to New York this week to press the U.N. Security Council to use its influence to convince the government to invite the team into the country to conduct its investigation. Karin Konig Abuzayd is the third member.
"I hope that our friends in the Security Council will try to convince the Syrian government that it is in its own interest that we enter Syria," Pinheiro told reporters this week.
Last month, the commission concluded that Syria's top military commanders and government officials have committed widespread and systematic human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity. It presented the U.N. Human Rights Council with a secret list of the names of individuals and military units suspected of bearing greatest responsibility for orchestrating or carrying out these abuses.
The report, which was released this morning in Geneva, represents a devastating account of the Syrian government's role in using excessive force -- including the indiscriminate shelling of restive towns -- to crush an uprising that began in March 2011, as a peaceful protest movement. The commission also documented rights violations by members of the armed opposition movement formed by military defectors, which has drawn increasingly from members of the general population.
But it said the overwhelming majority of abuses were carried out by government security forces and pro-government militias. "The government has manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the populations; its forces have committed widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity, with the apparent knowledge and consent of the highest levels of the State" reads the commission report. It added: "anti-government armed groups have also committed abuses, although not comparable in scale and organization with those carried out by the state."
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A U.N. panel set up last year to enforce an arms embargo in Libya has opened an inquiry into allegations that France and Qatar armed Libyan rebels involved in the overthrow of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's government, according to confidential report by the panel.
The eight-member panel has made no ruling on whether the allies of the rebel Libyan government violated sanctions -- and it remains unclear whether the panel will in the future -- given that France and other allies in the Security Council can exercise considerable authority over the panel.
Still, the report sheds new light on how the anti-Qaddafi opposition was able to transform a collection of militias and tribal leaders into a fighting force capable of defeating the government's superior military forces. And it includes acknowledgments by France and Qatar that they supplied military advisers to the insurgents to help prevent government attacks on civilians.
The report, which has not been made public, was distributed to the 15 governments that sit on the U.N. Security Council, and includes a stamp of the recipient country on each page, a practice that is used to limit leaks. But Turtle Bay obtained excerpts of the report from sources with access to it.
The panels' s findings come as Libya is trying to rebuild its military capability. Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. envoy, appealed to the Security Council earlier this month to lift the arms embargo, saying his government needs to buy new weapons to maintain security in the country and reinforce its borders.
The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze on Libya on Feb. 26, 2011, in an effort to prevent Qaddafi from importing weapons to help him crush the popular uprising that ultimately led to his fall from power. They established a panel to enforce the sanctions.
On March 17, the Security Council, acting at the request of the United States, amended the embargo to permit some unspecified military support, providing flexibility to NATO forces enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.
The role of foreign militaries in supporting the insurgents on the ground was an open secret during the conflict, but the legal basis for arming them was hotly debated.
At the time, the Security Council was sharply divided over whether the exemption applied to shipments of arms to the rebels. The United States and France argued that such shipments were permitted, particularly in instances where the weapons could be used to defend civilians from a government attack. But several other council members, including Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and Portugal -- which chairs the committee -- believed that it was not. Even Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, a strong supporter of the Libyan intervention, questioned the legality of arming the rebels.
The panel has relied on a combination of news reports and interviews with Libyan insurgents and officials from the former regime.
It cites a July 2011 interview in Benghazi, in which Qaddafi's defense minister, and an arms expert in the Libyan Ministry of Defense, accused Qatar of channeling massive amounts of weapons into Libya. "The panel was clearly informed that several countries were supporting the opposition through deliveries of arms and ammunition including Qatar," reads the report. "According to the same sources, between the beginning of the uprising and the day of the interview, approximately 20 flights had delivered materiel from Qatar to the revolutionaries in Libya, including French anti-tank weapons launchers, MILANS."
"A number of media reports indicate that Qatar supported the armed opposition to [Qaddafi] from early on in the conflict by participating in the NATO air operations, as well as through the direct provision of a range of military materiel and military personnel," the report added.
The panel honed in on a July 2011 report in a Swiss television program that stocks of Swiss-made M-80 rifle ammunition was used by anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya. The ammunition had been sold to Qatar in 2009, but Swiss authorities told the sanctions committee that the ammunition had been exported to Qatar under the condition that it not be re-exported to another buyer.
"Swiss authorities have thoroughly looked into this case and have been in contact with the authorities of Qatar," Johann Aeschlimann, a spokesman for the Swiss mission to the United Nations, told Turtle Bay. "For Switzerland, the case is settled. Switzerland has informed the panel of experts of the Libya sanctions committee of the UN Security Council in detail about this case."
The Qatari government denied supplying any weapons or ammunition to the insurgents, saying it did not know how the Swiss ammunition found its way into Libya. In a Feb. 12, 2012, letter Qatar informed the panel that it "sent a limited number of military personnel to provide military consultations to the revolutionaries, defend Libyan civilians and protect aid convoys and that it supplied those Qatari military personnel with limited army and ammunition for the purpose of self defense," according to the panel report. But Qatar "categorically denies the information reported by some media that it supplied the revolutionaries with arms and ammunition."
"If some of the afore-mentioned ammunition found its way to some Libyan revolutionaries, the Qatari government has no explanation other than the conditions of fierce fighting taking place in most of the Libyan territory, which could have lead to exceptional consequences that are difficult to assess."
On June 30, 2011, France informed the U.N. secretary general that it had "airdropped self-defense weapons for the civilian population that had been victims of attacks by Libyan armed forces," according to the panel. "In the absence of any other operational means of protecting these populations under threat."
On July 20, the panel asked France to provide them with "detailed information" on the arms drops, including "the exact types and quantities of weapons, serial/lot numbers, marking details of the different items and the dates and location(s) of the deliveries." According to the report, France provided some details, including the period and location of the airdrops, as well as "a list of humanitarian and military materiel." They asked the panel to keep the information confidential.
"France notified its actions as requested by the resolution and actively cooperates with the panel," Brieuc Pont, a spokesman for the French mission to the United Nations told Turtle Bay.Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today pressed the U.N. Security Council to reinforce diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Syria, saying that the death toll in the country has now surpassed 8,000.
Speaking at a luncheon with a small group of reporters, Ban urged the Security Council's big powers to reach agreement on a resolution that would call on Syrians to immediately halt the violence there, permit the delivery of humanitarian assistance to besieged communities, and endorse the efforts of his envoy, Kofi Annan, to start a political talks between the government and opposition over the future of the country.
"The Security Council should adopt the resolution immediately," Ban said.
Ban said he told the Security Council's major powers at a luncheon on Monday that he recognizes that "it is a prerogative of the Security Council members" to make its own decision but that "as a secretary general of the United Nations we can not go on like this. The longer you talk, or delay, more and more people, hundreds and even thousands of people will be killed. So there is no time to lose."
Ban said that the wider U.N. community, "including myself," bear part of the responsibility for failing to contain the violence in Syria.
But he said it is "too early to conclude that the U.N. is "not able" to deliver peace, noting that Annan, who met this morning with Syrian opposition leaders, is engaged in intensive diplomatic efforts to broker a deal that could staunch the killing.
Ban said he believes that a Security Council resolution demanding an end to the violence could change Assad's "political psychology."
But he said Syria's security forces, who have used "disproportionate use of force" against the opposition, bear the greatest responsibility for the current violence and that they should be first to halt the killing.
The timing of a cease-fire has become a major sticking point in diplomatic talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has insisted that the Syrian government -- as well as the armed opposition -- agree to a simultaneous cease-fire. But Arab and Western governments have insisted that Syria, which has overwhelming military superiority, stop shooting first.
"It is [the] Syrian national security forces ... which started [the killing] so they must stop," Ban said. "Once it is done we will have a means to ensure that opposition will stop the violence." Ban said his three chief priorities in talks were to: "First end the violence, all the violence; second engage in an inclusive dialogue for a political solution; and thirdly, establish an access for humanitarian assistance."
Those key elements omit a key plank of an Arab League proposal that requires President Bashar al-Assad yield some of his powers to a vice president to negotiate the terms of a national unity government, which would be headed by an individual accepted by both sides. Russia, along with China, vetoed a Security Council draft resolution that endorsed that plan, arguing that it would impose a foreign political solution on the Syrians.
The removal of that provision from the U.N.'s diplomatic talking points has led to speculation that Assad may be allowed to remain in power. Asked if Assad had likely survived the calls for his removal, Ban said, "If he thinks he can weather this storm...he [has made] a serious misjudgment...He cannot continue like this. He has gone too deep, too far."
Kofi Annan, meanwhile, wrapped up his talks with the Syrian opposition today and is expected to make an announcement on Wednesday regarding Assad's response to a peace proposal Annan presented him in Damascus earlier this week.
"Once I receive their answer I will know how to react," he said in a statement. "But let me say that the killing and the violence must stop. The Syrian people have gone through a lot, they deserve better. I have made it clear at the beginning of my mission that my main preoccupation is the welfare of the Syrian people and the Syrian nation. We should put the interests of the people at the center of everything that we do. And I know that the strong international community support, the whole world is coming together, is working with us to resolve this situation in Syria, and with goodwill and determination I am hopeful we will make progress."
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Diplomats, by trade, are not naturally funny people.
And the lofty "permanent representatives," as the most senior U.N.-based ambassadors are called, are often among the least funny.
They can come across as a bit too earnest, overly confident, even pompous, and they are usually pitching a cause that doesn't translate well into snappy one-liners. While they may possess masterful negotiating skills they're rarely quick enough on their feet to parry a lethal jab from a hardened comic. And frankly, how does one offer up a riposte when the national honor has been mocked?
But every season, there they are, lining up for appearances on Comedy Central's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, confident that they can take advantage of a massive audience that could never be reached through a U.N. press conference.
But they commit comedy at their own peril.
Ask Switzerland's U.N. ambassador Peter Maurer, who got skewered by the Daily Show's faux news reporter John Oliver over his country's neutrality during World War II. ("Mr. Ambassador, is that neutral anger, or real anger?") Or Nassir al-Nasser, Qatar's then U.N. ambassador, who got visibly tense when Oliver challenged his pronunciation of "Qatar" and asked him what his country was doing to de-stabilize the Middle East. ("I'll just pause now to gauge the tension. Yep, that's tense; that is very tense indeed.")
Then there's the big screen, where the South Park creators have made a habit of lampooning U.N. officials or diplomats, including Hans Blix, the former U.N. weapons inspectors, who was thrown into a shark tank by Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police and torn to pieces for a laugh.
But you get the point.
No one is a choicer prey for a comic than a diplomat, particularly one that speaks with a foreign accent, represents a country with a funny name, and can't take a joke.
But not everyone falls victim.
Remember how the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, playing Ali G coaxed the former Egyptian U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali -- "the geezer" he called him -- to say, and spell out, the French word for human excrement -- "merde." But Boutros Ghali prevailed by playing along, offering his opinion on the funniest language -- "maybe Arabic" -- and patiently explaining why Disneyland can't become a U.N. member: "it's not an independent state."
Susan Rice emerged relatively unscathed in her bout with Stephen Colbert, but not before he got in a zinger about the effort to contain Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs. "Excuse me for interrupting you, but I enjoy it," Colbert said. "Iran is still working toward a nuclear weapon. [North] Korea got their nuclear weapon. I'm just as scared of both of these people. How are we stopping them? I mean, I know sternly worded letters are the bread and butter of the U.N. But maybe we should start typing them in all caps to let them know that we are really angry."
Last week, the Palestinian U.N. envoy, Riyad Mansour, tried his hand at sitting with Oliver, in a skit entitled "Who wants to be a member of the U.N.?" Mansourplayed along with the jokeas Oliver set some "preconditions" for the interview. "First this entire interview must be conducted with the 1967 vocabulary. Is that groovy with you?"
"Groovy? It is agreeable with me. Yes," Responded Mansour.
It moved onto a negotiation over who would control the studio's thermostat. (Thanks to Mondoweiss for the transcript.)
John Oliver: "...is it hot in here?"
Riyad Mansour: "It's fine."
John: "So you're not hot? Because I'm definitely hot."
Riyad: "I am not."
John: "OK, look, Ambassador, I think before we do anything, we are gonna have to come to a provisional status agreement on the temperature in this room."
Riyad: "If you want to lower the temperature, it's fine with me."
John: "But who's going to control the thermostat?"
Riyad: "The thermostat ... should be shared by all of us."
John: "Don't even think about dividing this thermostat."
Riyad: "We will not divide the thermostat, but it should be accessed by all those who cherish it and think that it is a holy place that should be accessed to everyone."
John Oliver [voiceover]: "After three and a half hours of laborious negotiations, we finally came to an agreement."
John: "We agree that at an unspecified time in the future, we will announce a summit to discuss the possibility of discussing a negotiation towards an agreement on temperature. Yes?"
John: "Shake hands for the camera. Thank you, Ambassador, this is a historic day."
Riyad: "Yes indeed."
So, how did Mansour fair for the first half of the program? He remained on message, keeping the focus on Palestine's bid for U.N. membership. And he didn't lose his temper. It helped that Oliver went a little easy on him, avoiding any awkward questions about suicide bombers or rockets from Gaza. So, let's see how he did in the game show portion of the interview.
John: "Hi Riyad where are you from, Riyad?
Riyad: "I'm from Palestine."
John: "Palestine? I've never heard of that. Ok, so question number one: What does U.N. stand for?
Riyad: [Long pause] "United Nations."
John: "That's correct. That's correct, Ryad, Congratulations. That's great. So, how do you think it's going so far?
Riyad: "We're doing good."
John: "Ok... It's the bonus round. You've come all this way. Now do you take what you've won so far ... or do you take what's inside the mystery box"
Riyad: "I take what's inside the mystery box."
John: "He's going to go for the mystery box. Ok good luck. [Opens box and removes a card with the verdict.]
John: "Riyad, oh I'm sorry it's a veto from the U.S."
Riyad: "If we're vetoed once well come back again."
John: "That's the spirit. He'll come back again, next time."
Indeed, if there's a comic willing to poke fun at him, he probably will.
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By Colum Lynch
Last week, I reviewed the diplomatic memoir of Kai Eide, a veteran Norwegian diplomat who served as the U.N.'s top envoy in Afghanistan from February 2008 to March 2010.
The book is chock full of dramatic nuggets: near escapes from suicide attackers, secret talks with the Taliban, and private battles with Richard Holbrooke, who opened his first meeting with the newly minted Norwegian envoy with the question, "When does your contract expire?"
But its title, Power Struggle Over Afghanistan, is enough to put off even the most ardent followers of Afghanistan's recent political history.
Books with riveting titles, like Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, Peter Bergen's The Longest War or Ahmed Rashid's Pakistan on the Brink, have fed a market for insights from a region that has bedeviled foreign powers for centuries.
But how can the U.N. be heard in a crowd of such dramatic titles?
Not with a title like this: Afghanistan's Troubled Transition: Politics, Peacekeeping, and the 2004 Presidential Election.
Now here's a book title that screams "don't read me," unless, that is, you work in the U.N. "lessons learned" department or you're pursuing a Ph.D in international elections. The price tag, $69, is also a sign that this volume is destined for libraries and classrooms.
Which is a shame, really.
Because it is likely one of the best book you can find that explains why Afghanistan -- after receiving billions of dollars of Western aid -- has been wholly incapable of establishing durable local institutions that could keep the country together after the U.S. and its military allies leave. The book, written by Scott Steward Smith, a former American aide to Eide, details the real-world compromises that U.N. officials, under pressure from the Afghan president and the United States, make that undermine long-term efforts toward development. It names names, offering a sober critique of decisions by U.S., U.N., and Afghan players, from Karzai to American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to a host of U.N. envoys, including Lakhdar Brahimi.
But both books are something of an exception.
In fact, U.N. officials rarely write books, and certainly not books that are worth reading, because candid revelation of bureaucratic bungling or big power cock-ups can harm a career.
Some of the most readable accounts of life in the field by U.N. envoys -- including Alvaro De Soto, a Peruvian national who wrote a withering critique of the U.N.'s Middle East policy, or Charles Petrie, the French U.N. resident coordinator in Burma from 2002 to 2007 -- were buried in classified end-of-mission reports, written for the benefit of the secretary general and a handful of other U.N. insiders. "From Burma‘s remote jungle capital of Naypyidaw, the image of life that emerges in official reports for the government‘s military rulers appears sunny," I wrote in a piece for the Washington Post describing Petrie's report. "Economic growth in Burma has reached about 13 percent annually over the past five years, they say. Literacy is also soaring, with more than 96 percent of citizens able to read and write."
Petrie was ultimately kicked out of Burma by the regime he had mocked, but he survived in the U.N. system by restricting his thoughts to private reports, although they didn't remain public for long.
Eide, who just turned 63 and is headed toward retirement, has little to fear from bureaucratic retaliation.
Smith, a promising electoral expert, resigned his post at the U.N. around the time his book was published.
If history has anything to teach, he was probably wise to do so.
One of the catchiest titles to emerge from the U.N.'s rank and file, Emergency Sex and other Desperate Measures, told the story of three young U.N. humanitarian relief workers struggling to do good in the world, while sometimes misbehaving.
One of the authors had already left the organization, placing them beyond the reach of the censors. But another, Andrew Thomson, a doctor from New Zealand, was pretty much driven out of the organization -- though he was later reinstated and promoted after the intervention of a whistleblower organization. But the U.N. brass viewed the effort as an act of disloyalty and the book as excessively sensational.
The threat of going against the firm has led to a dearth of memorable U.N. diplomatic memoirs in the years since Brian Urquhart wrote, a Life At Peace and War, a classic autobiography of the former World War II veteran's life as a paratrooper, intelligence officer, and later as a Nazi hunter, before his storied career that placed him at the center of the U.N.'s invention of peacekeeping.
But the books with good titles are generally written by U.N. officials who have left the organization: Backstabbing for Beginners, a memoir by Michael Soussan, of his life working on the Oil for Food program, and Shake Hands with the Devil, an account of Gen. Romeo Dallaire's failure to secure official approval to confront Rwanda's mass killers during the country's 1994 genocide.
Still, U.N. officials quietly continue to pen books, mostly for think tanks and university imprints, including The Procedure of the UN Security Council, by Sydney D. Bailey and Sam Daws, a 689-page reference guide to anything you want to know about the security council's activities, Global Governance and the UN: An Unifinished Journey, by Thomas Weis and Ramesh Thakur.
But some of the most readable books are hidden behind bland titles.
The UN Secretariat: A Brief History (1945-2006), a slim volume published in 2006 by the International Peace Academy, now known as the International Peace Institute, was written by Thant Myint-U and Amy Scott. The book provides a serviceable history of the U.N. Secretariat with lots of juicy tidbits, like Kurt Waldheim's costly renovation of his headquarters -- out with Dag Hammarskjold's stylish Scandinavian furniture and in with the seventies wood-paneling and leather couches -- and efforts to secure a posh residence for himself overlooking Central Park. (He eventually had to settle for a posh Georgian-style townhouse on the East River, leased for free from the United Nations Association).
Than Myint-U, a former U.N. official and grandson of U-Thant, has gone on to write well received books about Burma, including one with this poetic title: The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma.
But of course you shouldn't judge a book by its title.
A few years back, I received a review copy of Edward C. Luck's Mixed Messages: American Politics and International Organization, 1919-1999.
Dismissing it as another dull think-tank production I dumped it in the wastepaper basket to make room on my bookshelf.
A few years later, reporting a story on the rise of the Tea Party and U.N. bashing throughout American history, I ran across some excerpts of the book online.
I immediately ordered a copy of the book from Amazon. It remains, by far, the best book on the subject.
Luckily, with a title like that, there were plenty of copies available.
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The U.N. Security Council's five big powers, plus Morocco, began negotiations today on a U.S.-authored draft resolution demanding that Syria end its violent crackdown on protesters and opposition groups and allow the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance.
The U.S. draft would throw the Security Council's weight behind an effort by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is serving as a joint U.N./Arab League envoy to Syria, to mediate and end the crisis. It would also threaten to consider "further measures" against Syria if it fails to comply with the council's demands.
"We have just begun today preliminary discussions among the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Morocco about whether there is any possibility of reaching agreement around a potential text that would demand an end to the violence in Syria and demand immediate humanitarian access," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said in a statement after the first round of talks. "These discussions are just beginning and will continue. If and when, it seems there is a basis for a meaningful and viable text, we will propose one to the full Security Council."
The American push at the U.N. follows more than a week of discrete efforts by Rice and other U.S. officials to persuade their Russian counterparts to support a tougher approach to Syria at the United Nations. Russia, backed by China, has already vetoed two resolutions condemning Syria's conduct during an 11-month-long campaign to crush a popular uprising. More than 7,500 people have been killed, mostly at the hands of Syrian security forces.
The U.S. draft -- which was posted by Al Hurra's reporter Nabil Abi-Saab -- "condemns the continued widespread, systematic, and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities and demands that the Syrian government immediately put an end to such violations." It also demands that Syrian authorities "immediately allow unhindered humanitarian access for all populations in need of assistance." And it calls for perpetrators of human rights violations to be held accountable.
The draft also calls on all armed elements in Syria, including the opposition forces from the Free Syria Army, to refrain from violence -- but only after the Syrian military withdraws its military and armed forces from Syrian cities and towns.
The text seeks to place the Security Council behind an Arab League initiative that demands Syria cease all violence, protect its population, release political prisoners, and agree to the establishment of a transitional government of national unity headed by an individual selected by the government and the opposition.
Russia and China vetoed a resolution making similar demands on the grounds that the Arab League had no authority to impose a political solution on Syria, and insisting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad play a role in any political reform plan.
In an effort to overcome Russian objections, the United States included language stating that the 15-nation council "fully supports" a U.N. African Union effort, led by Kofi Annan, to facilitate a "Syrian-led political transition to a democratic pluralistic political system." In the event that Syria refuses to comply with the council's demands, the draft states that the Security Council will meet within 14 days of the resolution's passage to "consider swiftly further measures."
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The International Criminal Court's 120 member states backed a General Assembly proposal this week that would restrict the U.N.'s ability to engage with Sudanese political leaders wanted by the Hague-based tribunal.
The initiative, which was tabled by Switzerland, faced initial resistance from troop contributors and traditional critics of the ICC, including the United States, China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and Thailand. The United States is in talks with the Swiss about a possible compromise.
It is also unpopular among U.N. peacekeeping officials and envoys, who feel they need flexibility to deal with the leadership in a country where the president, Omar al-Bashir, and a key official have been served arrest warrant by the ICC.
The initiative reflects mounting frustration by European governments and other ICC supporters that U.N. peacekeepers in Sudan have periodically provided support to alleged war criminals, including Ahmad Haroun, who was flown in U.N. aircraft last year to participate in peace talks in the disputed region of Abyei.
The U.N. defended the decision on the grounds that Haroun was the only government official capable of convincing members of the pro-government Miseriya tribe to pursue peace talks with the rival Ngok Dinka tribe. But the talks never resulted in a durable peace -- and last May, Sudanese government forces overran the town, driving the Ngok Dinka residents from their homes.
The U.N. "policies provide for sufficient flexibility by allowing contacts which are essential to the mission," said one U.N. diplomat, who has been critical of the United Nations. "But why did the U.N. transport Haroun to meet with tribal leaders? They claim only he had the authority to talk to tribal leaders and prevent them from resorting to violence. That's at best naïve, at worst a lie.... This meeting didn't prevent anything."
The latest move comes several weeks after the U.N. secretary general publicly instructed Ibrahim Gambari, the joint U.N. African Union representative in Darfur, Sudan, to limit his personal contacts with Bashir, who has been charged by the ICC with orchestrating genocide in Darfur.
On Jan. 20, Gambari, a former Nigerian diplomat who once served as the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, was photographed socializing with Sudan's Bashir at a wedding ceremony for the Chadian President Idriss Deby.
The Swiss are seeking to include the amendment in an annual General Assembly resolution that welcomes the establishment of the Hague-based court and calls on all U.N. members to support it. On Monday, Switzerland introduced a draft amendment before the U.N. General Assembly that encouraged the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take steps to ensure that his U.N. special envoys and mediators "refrain from any action" that could undercut the authority of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. The draft amendment is directed at U.N. personnel serving in peacekeeping operations, and calls on U.N. officials not to use any official "resources" that could undercut the ICC.
Here's the text of the amendment:
5bis. Requests the Secretary-General to ensure, consistent with the existing UN policies and pursuant to the Relationship Agreement, that United Nations field presences and representatives, especially peacekeeping operations, special political missions, special envoys, special representatives and mediators, refrain from any action, including the use of resources, that could undermine the efforts of the International Criminal Court, and requests the Secretary-General to submit a report on the application of such policies for the consideration of the General Assembly at its sixty-seventh session;
The U.N. currently has rules allowing its officials to engage in dealing with accused war criminals. In an internal memo, Patricia O'Brien, the U.N.'s lawyer, instructed officials to limit their conduct with accused war criminals to "what is strictly required for carrying out U.N. mandated activities." The memo, according to Human Rights Watch, which obtained a copy, states that "the presence of UN representatives in any ceremonial or similar occasion with [persons indicted by international criminal courts] should be avoided."
In the past year, Bashir has hosted a number of visits by top U.N. officials, including Hervé Ladsous, the U.N. chief peacekeeping official. Earlier this week, the U.N.'s top envoy to South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, held a meeting with Bashir to discuss Khartoum's troubled relationship with South Sudan. Johnson's meeting was aimed at encouraging the Sudanese government to help facilitate the return of more than 300,000 southerners seeking to return from the north to the south.
"The U.N. policy as it stands is already flexible and allows for unavoidable contacts with ICC indictees," Philippe Bolopion, the rights' group U.N. representative, told Turtle Bay. "It does not allow conducting business as usual with people who are the targets of ICC warrants."
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In his first extensive remarks on the Syria crisis, Kofi Annan, the former U.N. chief and current U.N.-Arab League envoy, made no mention of what has become the centerpiece of the Arab League's diplomatic strategy: a political transition to a government of national unity.
The omission may be a bit of diplomatic wizardry by the U.N. veteran, a shrewd effort to downplay a provision that Damascus finds objectionable, easing the path to face-to-face talks with Bashar al-Assad, and ultimately a deal that would compel the Syrian president to yield power.
But Annan's remarks have also served to reframe the debate over the Arab and Western approach by placing Assad at the center of any potential diplomatic settlement, and defining the immediate goals as relief and stability. He also chided governments who are seeking to use the current crisis to topple the regime by military means.
"The first thing we need to do, as the secretary-general has said, is to do everything we can to stop the violence and the killing, to facilitate humanitarian access and ensure that the needy are looked after, and work with the Syrians in coming up with a peaceful solution which respects their aspirations and eventually stabilizes the country," Annan said late Wednesday, at a press conference with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"I know there are people who have other ideas, that dialogue may not be the way to go and one should use other means," he added. "But, I think, for the sake of the people -- for the sake of the Syrian people who are caught in the middle -- a peaceful solution, through dialogue and a speedy one is a way to go."
Radwan Zaideh, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), told Turtle Bay that the group is concerned that the focus of the international community has shifted since a high-level meeting of Western and Arab governments in Tunisia, from the need for a speedy political transition to the need to step up humanitarian assistance to Syrians displaced or injured by the violence. "We should not only focus on the security aspects of the Arab League plan but political aspects," he said. "Assad has to step down."
But Zaideh said that the SNC thought Annan was a perfect candidate for the job because of his stature as a leading international diplomat and because he has the credibility to bring China, Russia, and Iran on board for a political settlement.
Indeed, Annan tried to draw together all the competing diplomatic strands, including a high-level Russian initiative to prod the opposition into engaging in talks with Assad's government. "If we are going to succeed, it is extremely important that we all accept there should be one process of mediation -- the one both the U.N. and the Arab League has asked me to lead," Annan said. "When you have more than one and people take their own initiatives, the parties play with the mediators. If one mediator says something they do not want they got to the other. So, one single unitary process, and it is when the international community speaks with one voice, that voice is powerful."
For now, the problem is how to get to Damascus.
Annan maintained cordial ties with Assad when he served as U.N. secretary general. President George W. Bush, seeking Syrian backing for a 2006 ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, looked to Kofi Annan to persuade Assad.
"I feel like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen," Bush said in a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that was inadvertently picked up by a live microphone. In her memoirs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would credit Annan with persuading Assad not to stand in the way of a final ceasefire deal ending the war.
Asked about his relationship with Assad, Annan said, "We haven't been in touch for a couple of years and so I will not presume anything. We will make the demarches and time will tell. But I would plead with him that he should engage, not only with me, but with the process that we are launching today."
Richard Gowan, a specialist on the United Nations at New York University's Center for Global Cooperation, said Annan's most important assets is his relationship with Assad, and that it is only natural that he would tread cautiously in his first days to preserve prospects for exploiting it.
"In Syria, it's not a situation like Kenya, where he can claim legitimacy as a great African statesman," Gowan said. "He has a personal history of talking with Assad and he may be able to have conversation that no else can have. The biggest challenge is what happens when he talks to the SNC or the rebels. He's not dealing with two coherent political parties, and he has no personal links to any of the rebels."
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Syria has failed to act on a request by the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, to visit the country to meet with top government officials and assess humanitarian conditions in the country.
Amos, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, has been pleading for several months to be allowed into the country to determine the extent of the country's humanitarian crisis. She renewed the request on Friday, after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asked her to travel to Syria to assess the situation.
The move come as the Syrian government has stepped up its violent crackdown against demonstrators and opposition groups, shelling restive towns, in particular Homs, in a brutal campaign aimed at crushing resistance.
"I am deeply disappointed that I have not been able to visit Syria, despite my repeated requests to meet Syrian officials at the highest level to discuss the humanitarian situation and the need for unhindered access to the people affected by the violence," said Amos, who is traveling in the region.
Last week, a U.N. commission of inquiry ruled that top Syrian officials committed "widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity," and need to be held accountable for their actions.
Amos said that the government's refusal to approve humanitarian assistance "prolongs" the suffering of Syrians and that the U.N. stands ready to help get assistance to those in need -- once the governments permits it.
The violence has driven up to 200,000 people from their homes, and forced another 25,000 to seek refuge in neighboring countries, according to U.N. estimates. "Given the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation, with an increasing need for medical assistance, food and basic supplies, improving access, so that assistance can reach those in urgent need, is a matter of the highest priority."
The effort to get relief into Syria comes as the death toll has been steadily rising, with the U.N. announcing Tuesday that more than 7,500 people have died since the government launched a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators back in March 2011.
"The Syrian government has manifestly failed to carry out its responsibility to protect its people," B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. undersecretary for political affairs told the Security Council on Tuesday. "On the contrary, it has subjected residents in several cities to indiscriminate bombardment by tank and rocket fire, killing its own people in ways reminiscent of the Hama massacre perpetrated by the Syrian government in 1982."
"Unfortunately," Pascoe added, "the international community has also failed in its duty to stop the carnage, and actions and inactions to date have seemed to encourage the regime in its belief that it has impunity to carry on wanton destruction of its own civilians."
Pascoe said that Syrian security forces "launched a merciless bombardment of residential areas in Homs" on Feb. 26. "We are now into the fourth week of the terrible attacks on major neighborhoods in this city. The situation for the people trapped inside them is increasingly dire. According to human rights organizations, more than 5,000 civilians have been prevented from fleeing by government forces."
Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general who was named as the U.N. and Arab League special envoy for Syria, is scheduled to arrive in New York today for several days of talks. He will address reporters along with Ban this evening.
Diplomats say that Annan will try to secure a commitment to travel to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad and to persuade him to accept an Arab League proposal for a political transition.
The United States, meanwhile, has "drafted an outline for a new U.N. Security Council resolution that would demand access for humanitarian aid workers in besieged towns," Reuters reported.
Security Council diplomats, however, said that it is unlikely the 15-nation council will begin serious discussions on the resolution until after the Russian presidential election on March 4. Russia has already vetoed two resolutions condemning Syria's crackdown, and has refused to permit any outside role that doesn't come with the backing of the Syrian government. As yet, there has been no discussion in New York about a controversial plan, initially raised by France, to establish humanitarian corridors in Syria along its borders with Turkey and Jordan.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is planning to ask his predecessor, Kofi Annan, to serve as his new U.N. envoy to Syria, turning to a high-profile diplomat with extensive experience in the region, and a history of dealings with President Bashar al-Assad, to help halt the spiraling violence in Syria.
If he accepts, it would be Annan's first major diplomatic troubleshooting effort since 2008, when he led an African Union mediation effort aimed at ending a post-election civil war in Kenya. Annan received international plaudits for his success in persuading the Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga to form a coalition government.
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Annan earned a reputation as a forceful proponent of human rights, promoting the doctrine that states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens, and building up the U.N.'s institutional capacity to monitor rights violations in peacekeeping missions. But he is also associated with some of the U.N.'s greatest human rights failures, including leading the U.N. peacekeeper department at a time when the U.N. failed to intervene to halt mass atrocities in Srebrenica and Rwanda.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution last week condemning Syria's violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators and asking the United Nations chief to appoint a special envoy to support an Arab League initiative for a political transition in Syria to a government of national unity.
Ban will be in London tomorrow, but is expected to announce the new appointment as a high-level diplomatic meeting takes place in Tunis, where top Western and Arab diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are set to discuss Syria's future. The selection of Annan sends "a clear message that this is at the top of the international communities agenda," said one council diplomat. "He's clearly a politica heavyweight."
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Syria's top military commanders and government officials have committed widespread and systematic human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity, according to the findings of a U.N. human rights commission that documented abuses carried out during the Syrian government's brutal crackdown on protesters.
The three-member U.N. Commission of Inquiry presented the U.N. Human Rights Council with a secret list of the names of individuals and military units suspected of bearing greatest responsibility for orchestrating or carrying out these abuses.
The report, which was released this morning in Geneva, represents a devastating account of the Syrian government's role in using excessive force -- including the indiscriminate shelling of restive towns -- to crush an uprising that began in March 2011, as a peaceful protest movement. The commission also documented rights violations by members of the armed opposition movement formed by military defectors, which has drawn increasingly from members of the general population.
But it said the overwhelming majority of abuses were carried out by government security forces and pro-government militias.
"The government has manifestly failed in its responsibility to protect the populations; its forces have committed widespread, systematic and gross human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity, with the apparent knowledge and consent of the highest levels of the State" reads the commission report. It added: "anti-government armed groups have also committed abuses, although not comparable in scale and organization with those carried out by the state."
The violence in Syria began more than 11 months ago, when Syrian protesters, inspired by pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. The government responded with a brutal armed crackdown that has led to the death of more than 6,000 people, according to estimates cited by the United States and Britain.
"The response of the security apparatus to what started as a peaceful dissent soon led to armed clashes," the report states. "One year later, the Syrian Arab Republic is on the brink of an internal armed conflict. Diverging agendas within a deeply divided international community complicate the prospects for ending the violence."
The commission expressed reservations about the Arab and Western push to strangle Syria's economy with ever stiffer sanctions, saying that it "does not support the imposition of economic sanctions that would have a negative impact on the human rights of the population, in particular of vulnerable armed groups."
The commission instead called for an "urgent, inclusive political dialogue, bringing together the government, opposition and anti government actors to negotiate and end to the violence.... The continuation of the crisis carries the risk of radicalizing the population, deepening inter-communal tension and eroding the fabric of society."
The report notes that the standoff has become "increasingly violent and militarized" in recent months, particularly in the town of Homs, Hama, Idlib, and Rif Dimashq -- where armed opposition have clashed with government forces. Syrian authorities initially withdrew their forces from the area and then surrounded the key towns, posting snipers at strategic locations and "terrorized the population, targeting and killing small children, women and other unarmed civilians."
In recent months, the Syrian authorities have also intensified the shelling of opposition strongholds. Following the withdrawal of Arab League monitors late last month, the army intensified its bombardment of key towns with heavy weapons.
"It gave no warning to the population and unarmed civilians were given no chance to evacuate," notes the report. "As a result, large numbers of people, including many children, were killed. Several areas were bombarded and then stormed by State forces, which arrested, tortured and summarily executed suspected defectors and opposition activists."
On Dec. 20, 2011, the report states, local residents in the Idlib region discovered the bodies of 74 defectors in a deserted stretch between the villages of Kafar Awid and Kasanfra. "Their hands had been tied behind their back and they appeared to have been summarily executed."
The commission report also notes that while the entire Syrian security apparatus has been engaged in rights violations, elite units close to the regime -- including the Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the Fourth Division -- and the pro-government Shabbiha militia have played an increasingly central role in operations that have resulted in civilian abuses and deaths.
The commission said the Syrian government, while denying U.N. observers entry into the country and access to key government officials, supplied it with a list of alleged attacks by armed opposition forces and "terrorists." The commission said that government's refusal to provide on-the-ground access made it more difficult to verify anti-government attacks, since the victims remain inside the country.
But the team also documented some instances of "gross human rights abuses" by representatives of the armed opposition, known loosely as the Free Syria Army (FSA). For instance, in Homs, armed opposition elements "were found to have tortured and executed" suspected members of the pro-government Shabbiha militia. And, in late January, members of the Free Syria Army "lynched a man suspected of working for the state security forces, and paraded his body on a pick-up [truck] through the streets."
"Some armed civilians in Homs, including armed civilians belonging to the FSA, sought to exact blood revenge for abuses by killing family members of security personnel or Shabbiha," the report found. "The commission highlights the fact that FSA members, including local commanders that have command responsibility, may incur criminal responsibility under international law."
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Syria may be growing increasingly isolated -- but it's not entirely alone.
China and Russia, the two U.N. powerhouses who vetoed a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council two weeks ago, remained steadfast in their support for Syria, casting their votes again on Thursday against a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Damascus. It passed, 137-12.
China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun is expected to arrive today in Damascus in a show of support for the country's beleaguered president Bashar al-Assad, and reinforce a Russian initiative to restart political talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. "China does not approve of the use of force to interfere in Syria or the forceful pushing of a so-called regime change," said Zhai, according to Reuters.
The Syrian leader also got short lifeline from a handful of anti-Western governments, including Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe -- countries that have themselves have been the target of Western attacks on their own human rights records.
"We denounce before the world the fact that imperial powers and their allies are hoping to trigger a regime change in Syria," said Venezuela's U.N. envoy Jorge Valero, striking a theme that was common among the resolution's opponents.
But all in all, it was not a good week for Assad or other despotic regimes, who found that an informal bloc of repressive governments was beginning to unravel and could no longer be relied upon to come to their defense.
A number of countries with deplorable rights records, including Burma and Sri Lanka, kept their distance from Assad's regime, casting abstentions, while newly minted governments in Egypt and Libya denounced the Syrian regime.
The United States, and its Arab and Western partners, peeled countries like South Africa and India away from the Russian and Syrian camps. "Today the U.N. General Assembly sent a clear message to the people of Syria -- the world is with you," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said yesterday in a statement.
Even Serbia, which has relied heavily on Russia's for support at the United Nations on Kosovo, broke ranks with its patron, voting in support of the Western- and Arab-backed resolution. In an effort to limit the damage, Serbia's envoy praised Moscow's effort to pursue a political settlement in Syria.
Indeed, Russia garnered broader support in the General Assembly than the vote would indicate for its efforts to negotiate amendments that would have placed greater demands on Syria's peaceful opposition leaders to dissociate themselves from armed resistance. It has warned that the Arab and Western sponsors may be exploiting the U.N. resolution to justify the ultimate overthrow of Assad's government.
In casting her country's vote for the resolution, Grenada's U.N. envoy, Dessima Williams, expressed trepidation about the prospects of having her action abused.
"Grenada understands that in and with this resolution the U.N. General Assembly is not voting on or for a resolution that directly or indirectly, or through interpretation or reinterpretation, can be used as the basis for the removal of governments through military intervention or other acts against the Charter of the United Nations, in letter or in spirit," she said. "With this understanding, and actually with a prayer and a hope, Grenada will vote for this resolution."
But despite the reservations the motion carried the day, underscoring the shifting center of political gravity at the United Nations, where the Arab League has upended decades of resistance to outside interference in its neighbor's affairs.
While Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jafaari, chastised his Arab counterparts for serving the interests of Israel and the West, and pledged to thwart their efforts to undermine his president, he seemed to sense the winds were changing. "The Arab Trojan horse has been unmasked today," he said.
So, to get a better sense of who stood on the side of Syria, or who stood aside Turtle Bay decided to publish a list of countries that opposed the resolution condemning Syria's conduct, those that abstained and those that didn't bother to vote. Well make an exception for Burundi, Comoros, and Kyrgyzstan, who all showed up, but were prevented from casting their votes by faulty U.N. voting equipment.
Check out the full list, after the break.
The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly today in favor of a resolution demanding Syria end its brutal 11-month long crackdown on anti-government protesters, and endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition that would require President Bashar al-Assad yield some of his powers.
The non-binding resolution, which passed by a vote of 137 to 12, with 17 abstentions, is largely symbolic and includes no provisions to enforce its commands on Syria through the imposition of sanctions or the threat of force. But it highlighted the growing isolation of Syria's closest allies at the United Nations, particularly China and Russia, who voted against today's resolution and vetoed a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council. China and Russia were joined by Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe in voting against the resolution.
The motion would also step up the United Nations role in seeking to mediate the crisis, which has left more than 6,000 people dead, by calling on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy for Syria.
The resolution, which was introduced by Egypt on behalf of the Arab League and co-sponsored by more than 70 governments, including the United States, "strongly condemns the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities." And it calls upon the Syrian government to "immediately put and end to all human rights violations and attacks against civilians."
Before the vote, Egypt's deputy U.N. ambassador voiced concern about a "major escalation of acts of violence" in Syria and demanded that the "Syrian government heed the demands" of its people and "stanch the bloodshed, ending the suffering of the brotherly Syrian people." The Egyptian diplomat assured the draft would not be used as a pretext for military intervention in Syria.
Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jafaari, denounced the sponsors of the resolution for "leading a political and media aggression against Syria" and providing logistical and military support for "armed terrorists" seeking the overthrow of Assad's government. He accused the resolution's chief Arab and Western sponsors of ignoring his country's offer to introduce political reforms, and dismissing a series of Russian amendments calling on the opposition to dissociate itself with the country's armed resistance.
France and Turkey, meanwhile, revived a proposal to lessen the impact of the violence by establishing humanitarian corridors to permit the distribution of assistance to civilians. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe sought to overcome Russian opposition to such a plan, urging Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a meeting in Vienna, Austria, to support a U.N. Security Council resolution establishing such corridors. Ban Ki-moon also urged Lavrov to help secure access for U.N. relief workers, telling him in a meeting in Vienna it is "vital to establish humanitarian access as soon as possible while the search for a political solution to the crisis continues."
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have been stalled since Feb 4, when China and Russia vetoed an Arab- and Western-backed Security Council resolution that called for the establishment of a government of national unity, headed by an individual approved by both Damascus and the opposition. After today's vote, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, criticized the sponsors of the General Assembly resolution on Syria, expressing concern that they were seeking to isolate Assad's government, and impose a foreign political settlement on the Syrian people.
For its part, the Arab League hoped today's vote would help reinforce their political plan. The text "fully supports" the Arab League plan for a political transition which requires Assad yield authority during the transition to a vice president. It also reinforces a series of Arab League demands that Syria has so far ignored. For instance, it demands Syria cease all violence, release all political prisoners, withdraw military forces from Syrian cities and towns, and grant free "unhindered access" to journalists and humanitarian aid workers.
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A Syrian woman, purportedly living in the besieged Syrian city of Homs, obtained the email distribution list for the political coordinators of the 15 nations on the U.N. Security Council, and fired off an angry letter in response to China's and Russia's veto of a resolution demanding a halt to the violence.
The writer, who identified herself as Yasmine, addressed her letter to Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, saying that while she had once been one of the Russian envoy's "greater admirers" she had been horrified by his decision to block council action. She pleaded with the Russian envoy to help secure the release of a 19-year-old cousin.
"I watch TV and see your hand. You veto Arab country resolution to save my city," she wrote in the Feb. 13 email, which was sent under the subject line "help Homs." "Your veto is licence [sic] to kill Syria infants, children, women and elderly."
Russia has come under intense international criticism for its role in preventing the U.N. Security Council from acting in Syria. For his part, Churkin has maintained that his government is actively pursuing a negotiated settlement to the 11-month long political uprising.
It was impossible to verify the woman's identity. But a Security Council diplomat who viewed the email, which also went to the Russian mission, said, "it is a reminder, as if we need it in this era of citizen journalists, that what happens in meeting rooms in New York can have real and sometimes tragic consequences in far away places like Homs."
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With an Arab League proposal for a U.N.-authorized peacekeeping mission failing to gain traction in the U.N. Security Council, France and Turkey today revived the moribund proposal for the establishment of a humanitarian aid corridor in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who first floated the idea in November, will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tomorrow to see if he can persuade Moscow to approve a U.N. Security Council mandate for such a mission. France will also press Arab and Western foreign ministers meeting in Tunisia next week as part of a gathering of so-called "Friends of Syria" to support the initiative.
The French plan, outlined by Juppe in November, called for the creation of safe zones, defended by armed international observers, along Syria's borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. It would have allowed international aid workers direct access to tens of thousands of Syrian civilians affected by a violent government crackdown on the country's 11-month long popular uprising. "The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously proposed, to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres, should be discussed at the Security Council."
But a French diplomat said there is currently no plan to have armed observers protecting civilians. And a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry in Paris subsequently made it clear that any decision on how such corridors could enforced would be up to the U.N. Security Council.
Turkey's Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, meanwhile, told the Turkish newspaper, Milliyet, that Ankara is considering a plan to deliver humanitarian assistance through a humanitarian aid corridor to besieged Syrian towns. "We want to work with the United Nations on a mechanism to deliver humanitarian aid to Syrian cities, particularly Homs and Hama."
The initiative comes days after the United States, Russia, and Britain expressed reservations about an Arab League plan to establish a joint United Nations/Arab League peacekeeping mission for Syria. And some Security Council diplomats voiced skepticism about the plan's prospects for gaining traction in the U.N. Security Council, citing the unlikelihood of Syria granting its consent.
"This doesn't fit with what the Arabs are doing," said one council member, who said France has not begun discussions on the plan with diplomats at the United Nations yet. "Frankly, it's not something upon which serious discussions are taking place."
For the time being, the U.N.'s center of gravity has shifted to the General Assembly, which is scheduled to vote tomorrow on an Arab draft resolution that condemns Syria's violent crackdown on protesters and endorses an Arab League proposal for a political transition in Syria. The draft, which is almost identical to a U.N. Security Council resolution recently vetoed by China and Russia, calls on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to appoint a special envoy to help support Arab peace efforts in the region.
While the General Assembly resolution is not enforceable through the imposition of sanctions or other coercive means, it will enlarge the U.N.'s diplomatic role in resolving the crisis, and ensure that Syria remains in the spotlight.
Russia, meanwhile, has introduced a series of amendments requiring that Syria's opposition "dissociate themselves" from Syria's armed opposition, linking the government withdrawal of armed forces from cities and towns to an end of armed anti-government attacks, and eliminating a provision endorsing an Arab League timeline for the establishment of a transitional government of national unity -- according to a copy of the Russian text obtained by Turtle Bay. The sponsors of the U.N. General Assembly rejected a previous effort by Russia to incorporate similar amendments into a Security Council resolution.
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For Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jafaari, the international conspiracy against his country has just entered a new stage.
Defending his government against charges of committing crimes against humanity, the Syrian envoy opened fire on Google, accusing the Internet powerhouse of brazenly changing Syrian street names on its online maps in the restive towns of Homs and Idlib. "This is a flagrant violation of United Nations General Assembly, the resolution of the Arab League pertaining to the standardization of the geographic nomenclature," he said.
"What does Google have to do with the names of streets in Syrian cities?" he asked. "What is this web site doing changing the names of streets in small Syrian cities and villages? Is this also an attempt to stem the shedding of Syrian blood or is this not part of the war [that foreign powers have been waging against Syria]?" asked Jaafari.
It was unclear precisely what the Syrian envoy was talking about. Google did not respond to an emailed request to its press office for comment.
The remarks came during a U.N. General Assembly meeting on Syria's human rights record, where the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a thinly veiled swipe against China and Russia for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing a political transition in Syria.
"The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian Government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force," she said.
Pillay urged the U.N. body to take some action to stem the violence in Syria, saying that the government in Syria has committed crimes against humanity. Pillay said that Damascus bore the primary responsibility for unleashing the political repression that has plunged the country into chaos, and threatened to pitch Syria into civil war. The Syrian government, she claimed, was responsible for the deaths of more than 300 people in Homs in the past 10 days,
Jafaari, who failed to block the U.N. meeting through the invocation of a procedural motion, said that his government is the victim of a wide-ranging political, diplomatic, military, and media conspiracy aimed at destabilizing President Bashar al-Assad's government.
He accused the U.N. General Assembly president, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar, of abusing his position to promote a hard-line anti-Syria stance favored by his government, which has led the Arab League response to the crisis. He also blamed foreign governments and the media, particulary Al Jazeera, for trying to impose "You Tube Justice."
"Yes, we have shortcoming, yes we have problems in Syria," Jafaari said in a lengthy address to the U.N. General Assembly in which he also invoked one of Jesus Christ's most famous sayings: "Is there one among you whose country does not have shortcoming or problems?" he asked. "Would anyone of you be the first to cast the first stone? We need the help of the international community to go forward on reform to put Syria on the right path."
The Arab League decided on Sunday to call on the U.N. Security Council to establish a joint United Nations/Arab League peacekeeping mission to monitor a ceasefire in Syria. But there is no ceasefire to enforce, let alone a peace process, and Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, made clear that Russia would not send U.N. blue helmets into a conflict where there was no peace to keep. He also said that Syria's government must offer its consent before a peacekeeping mission could be established.
Rosemary Di Carlo, the U.S. deputy representative
to the United Nations, told the U.N. General Assembly gathering that the United
States "applauds the initiatives and leadership of the Arab League"
but did not comment on its call for a new peacekeeping force. The White House
agreed with Russia that a new peacekeeping mission could not be deployed before
a peace process was in place.
"We are discussing with the Arab League, the U.N. and our international partners, the circumstances in which a peacekeeping force, whether under Arab League, U.N. or other auspices, could help maintain peace in Syria," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. But he said the deployment of blue helmets required "a peace to keep: unfortunately as we know, there is not one."
Carney also said that Washington supported a plan for an expanded and enhanced Arab League mission in Syria, which Assad's government has ignored. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also expressed caution about the idea of a peacekeeping force.
"There are a number of challenges with it. But first and foremost you would need a new U.N. Security Council resolution. It has proven difficult to get any U.N. Security Council resolution," Nuland said.
Egypt, meanwhile, acting on behalf of the Arab League, told the U.N. General Assembly that the government is prepared to introduce a draft U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Syria's human rights abuses, calling for restraint by the armed opposition, and endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition. A similar resolution was vetoed by Russia and China more than a week ago.
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Last week, Russia and China's U.N. veto of a resolution to stem the violence in Syria and set forth a transition of power from Bashar al-Assad appeared to sideline the United Nations from the crisis.
But today, the U.N. appeared to be moving back into the game. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to consider participating in a joint Arab League-U.N. monitoring mission in Syria and appointing a joint special envoy to deal with the crisis.
"Yesterday, I spoke with the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, about how to end the killings and begin political negotiations," Ban told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday. "He informed me that he intends to send the Arab League observer mission back to Syria and asked for U.N. help. He further suggested that we consider a joint observer mission in Syria, including a joint special envoy."
The move comes as key Western and Arab leaders are weighing the possibility of going to the U.N. General Assembly to seek support for a resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition in Syria. They would argue that China and Russia's veto over the weekend of a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council has prevented the U.N. security body from shouldering its responsibility for managing peace and security in Syria.
The move came on the heels of a high-level visit by Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Russia's top intelligence official, Mikhail Fradkov, to Damascus, where they met with the Syrian president. Assad said he was willing to allow the Arab League monitors to resume their work in Syria. He also committed to participate in Russian-brokered talks with the opposition. The Syrian opposition, however, has been unwilling to enter negotiations with Assad.
Ban, meanwhile, warned that the violence in Syria threatens to spread throughout the region, implicitly faulting Russia and China for blocking Security Council action. At the same time, he echoed criticism from Arab and Western leaders that Assad is responsible for the mass loss of life in Syria.
"For too many months, we have watched this crisis deepen. We have seen escalating violence, brutal crackdowns, and tremendous suffering by the Syrian people," he said. "I deeply regret that the Security Council has been unable to speak with one clear voice to end the bloodshed.
"The failure to do so is disastrous for the people of Syria. It has encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people. Thousands have been killed in cold blood, shredding President Assad's claims to speak for the Syrian people."
"I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods, is a grim harbinger of worse to come," he added. "Such violence is unacceptable before humanity. How many deaths will it take to halt this dangerous slide toward civil war and sectarian strife?"
The Obama administration, meanwhile, made it clear that the United States has little interest in using military force to pressure Assad to leave, as it did in Libya last year. "It's important to note there is not a clamor in New York, from the Arab League, even among many of the opposition elements in Syria, for foreign military intervention," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation in a discussion at the Core Club on Monday. "And there really isn't much in way of active debate and discussion about that as a potential immediate next step."
"What we are focused on is increasing the political pressure and the economic pressure on Assad and increasing his sense of isolation," she added. "There's more that the European Union could do; there's more that the neighboring countries can do.… There needs to be a transition in Syria that ends the killing and the horrific violence and leads to a much more peaceful and democratic disposition for the people. And we're going to continue and intensify the political and economic and diplomatic pressure toward that end with the expectation that, indeed despite this setback, the tide is not running in the favor of the Assad regime."
But is it possible to dislodge Assad without the use of military force? "I think … given the precise nature of the Syrian challenge, it would be far better and indeed possible and, we hope, probable that this can be resolved without the use of force and through diplomatic and economic means," said Rice.
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Russia and China today vetoed a Western and Arab-sponsored resolution condemning Syria's violent repression of anti-government demonstrators, throwing their prestige and power behind a beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad as he intensified a military operation aimed at crushing the year-long uprising.
The Russian and Chinese stance marked a blow to U.S. and European efforts to rally behind an Arab League plan that would require Assad to yield some of his powers, making way for the creation of government of national unity led by an individual with backing from the government and opposition.
The decision brought an end to weeks of tumultuous negotiations that pitted the United States, the European Union, and the Arab League against Russia, Syria's remaining protector in the Security Council. It undercuts a diplomat push by the Arab League to secure the 15-nation council's support of a plan that requires Assad to yield power and prepare the country for democratic elections. It also killed off provisions that would have required Syria open to far greater outside scrutiny, allowing foreign journalists, Arab monitors, and U.N. human rights investigators full an unimpeded access throughout the country.
Today's vote -- which gained support from 13 of the council's 15 members -- in the council followed a day in which Syrian authorities moved to crush resistance in the town of Homs, killing hundreds of civilians as Syrian observed the 30-year anniversary of the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians in Hama.
Before the vote, the United States and European diplomats appealed to Moscow to support join the rest of the international community in condemning a regime that is responsible for killing thousands of its own citizens, and jailing and torturing thousands more, including women and children.
President Barack Obama issued a statement calling on Assad to step down and
made a last-ditch effort to press Moscow and other fence-straddlers to support
the resolution, denouncing Syria's "unspeakable assault" against the people of
Homs. "The council now has an opportunity to stand against the Assad regime's
relentless brutality and to demonstrate that it is a credible advocate for the
universal rights that are written into the U.N. Charter," he said.
"Thirty years after his father massacred tens of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women, and children in Hama, Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated a similar disdain for human life and dignity," Obama said. "The Syrian regime's policy of maintaining power by terrorizing its people only indicates its inherent weakness and inevitable collapse. Assad has no right to lead Syria, and has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community."
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that the U.S. is "disgusted" by the Russian and Chinese veto, saying that the council has "been held hostage by a couple of members. These members stand behind empty arguments and individual interests while seeking to strip" any resolution of meaningful terms.
"A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant," she said. She said today's action was even "more shameful" given Russia's role in selling arms to Assad's government.
"It is a sad day for the council. It is a sad day for Syria," France's U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud said after the vote. "History has now compounded our shame."
"Those who would impede the adoption of [this resolution] would take a heavy responsibility before history," France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said shortly before the vote. "Failure to act would be [a] scandal," added Germany's U.N. envoy Peter Wittig. The "reports from Homs are shocking," he added.
But Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov said that resolution was impractical and unfair. "We are either going to adopt an absolutely unrealistic provision expecting that the government of Syria would withdraw from the cities and towns exactly at the time when the armed groups are taking over the quarters of those cities and towns."
"We are not friends or allies of President Assad," said Lavrov, who plans to visit Damascus on Tuesday. "We try to stick to our responsibilities as a permanent members of the Security Council, and the Security Council by definition does not engage in domestic affairs of member states."
After the vote, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, blamed his influential Western colleague's for undermine prospects for a deal, saying they had promoted a strategy aimed at "regime change" by backing the opposition's pursuit of power and feeding "armed methods of struggle."
The resolution, he said, would have "sent an unbalanced signal" to the key parties in Syria, and provide the opposition with greater scope for extending military gains. "The Syrian opposition must distance itself from extremist groups," he said.
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Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the Arab League, boiled down the case against military intervention in Syria to three obstacles: elections, money (or the lack of it), and a Syrian army with 300,000 troops.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, the former Egyptian foreign minister sought to reassure Russia that the Arab League quest to seek Security Council support for its mediation efforts in Syria will never lead to foreign military intervention.
For one, he said, the United States and France, are heading into an election year, making a costly military adventure political infeasible.
As for the prospects of another European-backed invasion, along the lines of what occurred in Libya? "I'm not going to say [they're] bankrupt," but they are "not in the best economic situation to enter into such a venture." And even if they had the money, they would be facing off with a regular army, not a collection of armed militias loyal.
The effort to assuage Russia's fear about a replay of Libya came as the United States and its European and Arab partners agreed to offer Russia a series of concessions to win its support for the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would pave the way for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's departure from power.
Those concessions include an agreement to drop provisions in the draft, introduced by Morocco, that would impose U.N. sanctions and a voluntary arms embargo on Damascus. The latest offer -- outlined in new version of a draft resolution under negotiation in the 15-nation Security Council -- represents something of a retreat by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies, stripping the most painful measures, and permitting Syria to continue buying Russian weapons to bolster its position.
But the pact would for the first time place the Security Council, and possibly Russia, squarely behind an Arab League plan outlining a timetable for a transfer of power to a government of national unity, and ultimately new parliamentary and presidential elections. And it would mark the first time since the violence began that the council has adopted a binding resolution condemning Syria's conduct.
Security Council diplomats said they are confident that they have fashioned the broad parameters of a possible deal that would end months of inaction on Syria by the Security Council. But they cautioned that Russia has yet to agree to support an unambiguous endorsement of the Arab League political plan, and that the entire plan could unravel if they don't.
"I don't want to predict ... but today discussion conducted in a constructive and roll-up-your-sleeves manner and if that continues there's a possibility that well reach agreement, but there's no certainty," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters late Wednesday. "There are issues of interest and principal that still divide the council."
The U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors this afternoon in an attempt to narrow the differences, but the talks hit a snag as Russia refused to approve an explicit endorsement of the Arab League plan for a political transition.
The Western and Arab sponsors plan to press ahead on the resolution, but Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin threatened to veto the measure if it was brought to a vote on Friday, saying his government needed more time to negotiate the terms of the resolution, according to two council diplomats who were in the closed-door session.
Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the chairman of the Arab League's council of ministers, appealed to the Security Council on Tuesday to lend their weight to a plan calling for the beginning of talks between the Syrian government and opposition, which would lead to the establishment of a unity government within two months. Under the plan, Assad would be required to grant one of his deputies authority to cooperate with the united government, which would be led by an individual selected by rival parties.
Elaraby sought to reassure Russia that the resolution is not intended to justify military action, sanction Syria, or to force Assad to leave power.
"We didn't ask that the president should step down, but only to delegate powers to the vice president," he said in an interview with CNN
But Elaraby said that Russian support for even a new, watered-down resolution would "put pressure" on the regime and drive home the fact that Moscow won't stand up for them indefinitely.
"The regime itself is under pressure from the international [community] -- and they cannot go on forever," he said. The lesson of Egypt, he said, is that "once the people will go to the street you have to yield to their demands."
Russia, which is backed by China, has insisted that the Arab League and the Security Council lack the right to impose a "pre-cooked" political settlement on Syria, saying that any plan for a transition needs to be negotiated by the Syrian government and the opposition. Russia's U.N. envoy, Churkin, has insisted that his government would block any resolution that was designed to bring about regime change in Syria. It has offered to host talks in Moscow.
In an effort to assuage Russian concerns that the draft might serve as part of a pretext for future military action, the sponsors of the text have offered to include language expressly stating that the resolution does not "compel states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force."
The latest draft replaces that language with a provision, which is still not agreed, that expresses the council's intention "to resolve the political crisis in Syria peacefully without foreign military intervention."
The Syrian government launched a brutal campaign of repression against peaceful demonstrators early last year, killing some 5,000 to 6,000 people, according to U.N. and other diplomatic estimates. In recent months, the violence has worsened as opposition forces have taken up arms against Assad government, leading the country to the brink of all-out civil war.
The U.N. Security Council adopted a presidential statement in August condemning the Syrian government's conduct and calling for a political dialogue with the opposition. But, in October, Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution that threatened sanctions against Damascus if it didn't halt the killing.
The latest draft "condemns the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities" and demands that Syria immediately cease attacks against protesters. It also condemns violent attacks against government targets by armed opposition forces.
But the text struck out a provision calling on states to "take necessary steps" to prevent the flow of weapons into Syria. It also eliminated another provision that called on states to reinforce existing Arab League financial and travel sanctions, and to impose similar measures against Syria.
If Syria fails to comply with the U.N.'s demands, according to the draft, the Security Council, in consultation with the Arab League, will consider "further measures," including possible sanctions, to ensure Syria does comply.
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For once, it wasn't all about the Americans, the Europeans, or even Israel for that matter.
Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, saved his bitterest barbs at the United Nations this week for his fellow Arabs, particularly Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the architect of an increasingly assertive foreign policy that has helped topple a government in Libya and is now pressing for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Arab League secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, and the Qatari prime minister, who serves as the chairman of the league's council of ministers, issued an appeal on Tuesday to the Security Council to support an Arab plan calling on Assad to yield power and make way for a new government of national unity. The Arab leaders, meanwhile, denounced the Syrian government as a murderous regime that had repeatedly defied Arab efforts to calm the violence in Syria.
Speaking before a congregation of top Western diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Jaafari denounced the Qatari leader as an agent of the West whose betrayal of Syria, a fellow Arab and a former ally, marked an end of an era of Arab nationalism.
"I would ask him before you: Is Qatar a member of NATO or a member of the Arab League?" Jaafari said to Shiekh Hamad, whose government armed rebels and contributed warplanes to the NATO air campaign in Libya. "How is it that Qatar has come to the aid of NATO in destroying Libya?"
The debate pitted Syria, the old guard of the Arab League, an ancient country that invented the alphabet, against Qatar, a nomadic upstart, which had hardly a place on the world stage before the discovery of massive oil wells. Jaafari derided the Gulf sheikdoms for their role in abetting the military aims of the British officer and adventurer, Lawrence of Arabia. Invoking the spirit of Arab nationalism, Jaafari recalled that as a schoolboy he and his classmates routinely dug into their piggy banks to lend to the cause of their oppressed brethren.
"We used to sing to the anthem of the Algerian revolution, instead of reciting the Syrian national anthem," he said. "We also used to give our pocket money to Arab liberation movements in Gulf [that were] struggling to be liberated from British colonialism."
The gauzy recollections of a united Arab past contrasted sharply with the portrait Elaraby and Sheikh Hamad painted of life in Syria under Assad's rule. They appealed to the Security Council to support their diplomatic efforts to promote a political transition, arguing that the killing of thousands of civilians continues unabated.
"Our efforts and initiatives ... have been useless because the Syrian government failed to make any sincere effort to cooperate," the Qatari official said. "And unfortunately, the only solution available to it was to kill its own people. The fact of the matter is that bloodshed continues and the killing machine is still at work."
"The crisis we are talking about started in absolutely peaceful demonstrations by unarmed civilians," he said. "The important question to be asked at this stage is what would be the solution for a people being slaughtered. The Syrian government invokes the violence committed by armed groups. Could it not be that they are defending themselves after months of killing, detention, and torture?"
Jaafari challenged that portrayal, insisting that his government was besieged by local terrorist groups, backed by hostile foreign governments. And he mocked the Qatari's new-found commitment to democratic governance in the Middle East. Some observers believe that Qatar's commitment to democracy in Syria is driven by its interest in weakening its most powerful regional rival, Iran, a close supporter of Syria.
Comparing Assad's current struggle to restore stability to that of liberation leaders like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and George Washington, Jaafari said: "It is really strange these days ... that some oligarchic states cosponsor draft resolutions promoting the alternation of power, the freedom of assembly, the promotion of democracy, and the protection and promotion of human rights."
And yet, he added, "those very states don't even have a constitution, let alone a genuine electoral system." They "have only exercised democracy through satellite stations and fancy conference halls," he added, referring to the influential Doha-based new network, Al Jazeera. "Al Jazeera should cease to fan the flames."
The Qatari countered that he was proud that God had blessed his country with great oil wealth and that he had no shame in working on a just cause alongside his Western partners. He reminded Jaafari that Syria too had supported the Arab League's decision to create a no-fly zone in Libya, and that Syria had joined forces with the Gulf states as part of a U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait. "We all contributed to the liberation of Kuwait against the Iraqi invasion," he said.
Jaafari acknowledged that his government had confronted Saddam Hussein's government, but insisted that Damascus had never physically invaded Iraq or Libya. "We never were involved in any conspiracy against any Arab country," he said. Meanwhile, he took aim at the Arab League saying that the Arab people would have preferred that the league had come to the U.N. Security Council to press for an end to "Israel's occupation of occupied territories. How strange to see some members of the League of Arab States having decided to resort to the Security Council seeking support against Syria."
"Without Syria," he concluded, "there is no Arab League."
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined senior Arab and European diplomats at the U.N. Security Council in denouncing Syria's violent crackdown on civilians, and urged President Bashar al-Assad to yield power.
The Security Council meeting represented an extraordinary scene -- with the secretary general of the Arab League rebuking a fellow Arab state and calling for outside pressure to nudge an Arab leader from power.
It provided a boost -- though by no means a certain one -- to the Western and Arab effort to press Syria's most powerful remaining supporter, Russia, to permit the adoption of a Security Council resolution endorsing a plan for a political transition in Damascus.
"The Arab League has come to the council seeking support of the international community for a negotiated, peaceful political solution to this crisis and a responsible, democratic transition in Syria," Clinton told the council. "We all have a choice: stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there."
Full speech after the break.
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As U.S. Secretary State Hillary Clinton prepared to deliver a plea to the United Nations to take tough action against Syria, the U.N. Security Council remained deadlocked over a Western and Arab-backed draft resolution condemning Syria's violent suppression of protesters, and calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.
Clinton will join a group of prominent Arab and European diplomats -- including Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the Arab League, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe -- who are seeking to ratchet up pressure on Syria's closet ally, Russia, not to block a council vote on the Arab League proposal for a political transition in Syria.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Sydney today that he would "never allow" a Libyan-style resolution that forces regime change in Syria. But he also sought to distance his government from the beleaguered Syrian leader.
"We are not a friend, we are not an ally of President Assad,'' Lavrov said. "We never said President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis. What we did say is it is up to the Syrians themselves to decide how to run the country.''
The more nuanced Russian stance provided European diplomats with greater confidence that there may be hope of persuading Moscow not to block the resolution, which has the backing of the Arab League leadership, according to a council diplomatic source. But the United States counseled against making new concessions to the Russians on the grounds that Moscow would probably block even a watered-down resolution, the source said.
The United States and its European partners have argued that they have never had any intention of using force against Syria, and that Russia's invocation of Libya is designed to draw attention away from Syria's crackdown on protesters. In an effort to overcome Russian objections to the draft, the sponsors of the resolution inserted language that explicitly rules out the prospect that the text could be used as a pretext for military action, according to a confidential draft of the resolution.
On Monday, Chinese, Russian, and Indian diplomats painstakingly reviewed the Western and Arab-backed resolution, expressing reservations over the most important provisions of the text. A copy of the text shows that provisions calling on states to prevent the flow of arms into Syria, reinforcing existing Arab League sanctions, and outlining the Arab League's road map for the transition to a government of national unity have been placed in brackets, a diplomatic drafter's shorthand for disagreement.
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Some were too old, too ill for their task. Others quarreled over reimbursements for hotel accommodations or refused orders to carry out their mission.
Simply put, many of the 166 Arab observers parachuted into Syria on Dec. 24 to document the widening violence were utterly incapable of enduring the rigors of life in a country roiled by social upheaval and conflict, according to an internal account of their work.
"Regrettably, some observers thought that their visit to Syria was for pleasure," wrote Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi, the chief of the Arab League monitoring mission. "In some instances, experts who were nominated were not qualified for the job, did not have prior experience, and were not able to shoulder the responsibility."
On Jan. 18, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby ordered the suspension of the organization's observer mission, its first major experiment in human rights monitoring. He claimed that the escalation of violence had undercut its ability to do its job.
But a confidential account of the organization's mission, signed by the monitor's controversial chief and obtained by Turtle Bay, shows that the Arab monitors were hobbled from the beginning by a shortage of equipment -- and by what Al-Dabi describes as a ferocious Syrian media disinformation campaign against the monitors and him personally. "The credibility of the mission has been undermined in the minds of Arab and foreign viewers," he wrote.
Still, the findings have become the focus of a diplomatic feud between Russia and the Security Council's main European powers -- which are set to debate taking more forceful position on Syria today. On Monday, Jan. 30, Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, insisted that the Security Council receive a briefing on the report's conclusions. The Europeans, meanwhile have dismissed the report out of hand, saying the Arab League's mission was effectively a failure, and their report has nothing to offer the council to chart its diplomatic course.
Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's U.N. ambassador, said Friday that the work of the monitoring group has been "overtaken" by the Arab League's diplomatic efforts to secure Security Council support for a political transition in Syria.
At issue is a single finding in the 18-page report that recommends that Arab governments not relinquish their mediating role to the international community, a likely reference to the Security Council. European diplomats say the mission had no mandate to make such an assertion, while Russian officials say it would be irresponsible to deny the Security Council the right to review the Arab League's full account of what happened on the ground.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.