Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, appealed last week to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to expand his investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria to include three additional towns where rebels claimed nerve agents were used, a British official confirmed today.
The appeal comes as the United States and Russia are preparing the ground for a major peace conference on Syria in Geneva, planned for June. The preparations for the Geneva talks have shifted the international debate away from talk of a U.S. military response to the use of chemicals weapons by the Syrian regime to U.S. and Russian efforts to fashion a political settlement.
In advance of those talks, Britain has sought to build up political pressure on Syria and its chief patron, Russia, to yield to international pressure to accept the establishment of a transitional government to replace President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
On Monday, Britain led diplomatic efforts in Brussels to block the extension of a European arms embargo on Syria, raising the prospect that European governments might ship arms to the Syrian rebels if political talks fail. And this morning, Britain's U.N. envoy informed reporters about his government's concerns over new possible use of chemical weapons.
In the British letter, Lyall Grant urged the U.N. chief to investigate rebel claims that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons in March in the town of Adra, near Damascus; in April in Darraya; and in late April in Saraquib, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the British account.
A spokeswoman for the British mission to the United Nations, Iona Thomas, declined to discuss the details of the information shared. But she said: "The United Kingdom's permanent representative to the United Nations has written to the U.N. Secretary General to draw attention to three further allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria and have asked that they be included in the UN's ongoing investigation."
The Syrian government first invited the United Nations to investigate possible chemical weapons use back in March. The regime accused the Syrian opposition of using chemical weapons during fighting in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo on March 19, where 26 people were killed, including regime troops.
Britain and France countered with their own calls for investigations into the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in and around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and possibly Damascus.
Ban appointed a veteran Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to investigate the allegations by the Syrian government and European powers. But Syria has not agreed to permit an investigation into the European claims and has not yet allowed the team into the country. Sellstrom, whose contract was recently extended until November, is seeking to collect as much evidence as possible outside the country, interviewing government officials with access to intelligence on Syria's chemical weapons program, refugees, and other potential eyewitnesses who have left the country.
So far, Britain has written the U.N. chief four letters documenting its concerns about chemical weapons use in Syria. It is also sharing more detailed information on the latest three attacks with Sellstrom, according to a U.N. diplomat. But Britain has not made its findings public, making it impossible to verify the veracity of its claims that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons.Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
A British-led effort to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria succeeded by default on Monday, as a political split between European leaders over the fate of the ban killed off any hopes of extending the embargo's life. The British government, backed by France, is hoping that the prospect of new arms flows to the Syrian rebels could strengthen the opposition's negotiating hand on the eve of a major peace conference in Geneva planned for later this month.
But the decision to end the embargo in two months hasn't resulted in any immediate calls or plans for arming the opposition. Instead, Russia cited the decision today in defending its own move to deliver S-300 air defense missiles, claiming it would deter foreign intervention. "We consider that such steps will restrain some hotheads from the possibility of giving this conflict, or from considering a scenario that would give this conflict, an international character with the participation of external forces," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, according to Interfax news agency.
Jean Marie Guéhenno, a former French official and under secretary-general for peacekeeping who served as a top advisor to former U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan, said that the decision to block the maintenance of the European arms embargo has merely provided political cover to Russia and other regime supporters to continue its arms sales. Meanwhile, there's little fresh hope that Western powers will enter the conflict on behalf of the rebels.
"I think it backfired and exposed the weakness of the West, in general," Guéhenno told Turtle Bay. "This issue of arming or not arming is more a bluff than anything else. It's more about doing something to show you're doing something than actually doing something. It will be seen by the Russians, who are not fools, as a sign of weakness rather than strength."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague hailed the decision to ease the barrier to arms shipments to the rebels, however. "We have brought an end to the EU arms embargo on the opposition," he said. "This decision gives us the flexibility in future to respond to a worsening situation or the refusal of the regime to negotiate."
But the decision placed new strains on the European alliance. Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden vehemently opposed lifting the arms embargo, fearing it would undermine a U.S. and Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at starting political talks between Damascus and the rebels. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger warned that they likely would pull 300 Austrian peacekeepers out of the Golan Heights, which separates Syrian and Israel forces, if Britain decides to arm the rebels, according to the Guardian.
The move to lift the embargo comes at a time when military support for President Bashar Al-Assad is on the rise, not only from Moscow but from Tehran and Lebanese Shiite militants. On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his fighters were committed to wage Assad's battle to the end. "We will continue to the end of the road," he said, according to Reuters."We accept this responsibility and will accept all sacrifices and expected consequences of this position," he said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. "We will be the ones who bring victory."
In comparison, warnings from the West of possible military action in the future seem to be doing little to deter Assad's backers. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the U.S. decision to co-sponsor, along with Russia, a diplomatic peace conference on Syria later this month, has lessened calls for military action to halt the killing. "Basically, this process kills the whole discussion on intervention, chemical weapons, and R2P [the Responsibility to Protect doctrine]," Hokayem told Turtle Bay.
"Yesterday's focus on the arms embargo issue at the European Foreign Minister's meeting was something of a red herring," Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey wrote in a blog post at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The West is, quite simply, ill-equipped to win a proxy arming race if its support for rebels prompts Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime. And that is exactly what has happened. Russia's announcement today that it will supply anti-aircraft missiles was entirely predictable."
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The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on hold and serve as the diplomatic ringleader for the high-stakes negotiations.
The political conference -- which is designed to bring together Syrian officials, opposition leaders, and big-power foreign ministers -- is expected to begin in Geneva, Switzerland, around June 15 and last two to three days, though the final date has not been set in stone, according to diplomats involved in the preparation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has committed to open the event with a speech, but he will turn over the work of mediation to Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic trouble shooter who has negotiated peace deals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brahimi has confided to diplomats that he envisions the conference as a truncated version of the 2001 Bonn conference, where the former Algerian diplomat helped forge a transitional Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai to fill a political vacuum created by the U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban. The meeting will start large, with speeches by senior international dignitaries, and then shift into more intimate talks involving the warring parties.
Brahimi's goal is to gain support for the implementation of the June 2012 Geneva action plan, which outlined a roadmap for a political transition to a provisional government with full executive powers in Damascus. The Geneva pact -- which was backed by Russia and the United States -- represents the most important big-power agreement on a plan to resolve the conflict. But the deal has foundered in the face of a split over the wisdom of threatening further sanctions against the Syrian government to compel its compliance with the terms, as well as differences over the role of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's future.
There are several crucial matters that remain unresolved on the eve of talks, including the composition of the Syrian and opposition delegation, and the question of whether they will talk directly or communicate through Brahimi. The role of the United States and Russia, the key sponsors of the conference, and other major powers like Britain, China, France, and Turkey remains undecided. Some of the most controversial regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, which is arming the opposition, and Iran, which is arming the Syrian government, will not likely be invited.
So far, the Syrian government has proposed some five to six names of government representatives, including Prime Minister Wael al-Halki, Information Minister Omran Zoabi, and Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar. But the opposition has yet to select their own representatives or approve the Syrian government list.
Selecting an agreed slate has been complicated by the need to identify individuals who have sufficient authority over the Syrian combatants to compel them to accept a potential political deal, but who are not associated with human rights abuses.
The diplomacy is unfolding against a backdrop of deepening violence, not only in Syria, but in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where fighting broke out on May 19 between residents of Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in the town of Tripoli.
The pro-Syrian militia, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid Assad's forces in its battle for the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East told the Security Council today. "The past month has seen repeated incidents of shelling from Syria into Lebanese territory that has caused casualties."
Serry also said that the U.N. secretary general "remains gravely concerned about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons." Citing "mounting reports on the use of chemical weapons" he urged the Syrian government to allow a U.N. team into the country to examine the allegations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met in Amman, Jordan, today with the pro-opposition diplomatic coalition called the "Friends of Syria" -- a group that includes representatives of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Kerry said they would discuss how to help the opposition fashion a slate of representatives for the Geneva talks that constitute the "broadest base possible in Syria."
"We will discuss the framework, the structure of what we think Geneva ought to be. And obviously, that will have to be discussed with the Russians, with the United Nations, and with others in order to find the formula that moves us forward most effectively," Kerry said before the meeting. "We will listen to all voices with respect to the format, to the timing, to the agenda, and to the outcomes that should be discussed."
In the meantime, the U.S. and European powers sought to increase pressure on Syria to show flexibility in Geneva. On Monday, the European Union is expected to meet on Monday to decide whether to lift or ease an arms embargo that has limited the opposition's ability to purchase weapons. Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the United States may be prepared to provide military support to the opposition. "In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."
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Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre
It felt for a moment like the old days.
In a bold display of big-power diplomacy reminiscent of the waning years of the Cold War, the top U.S. and Russian diplomats met in Moscow this week to announce plans for ending a festering regional dispute in Syria that has divided the world.
After two years of diplomatic deadlock, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to convene an international conference to press for a political transition in Syria. Speaking at a joint press conference in Moscow with Lavrov at his side, Kerry affirmed the two governments' shared commitment to "a negotiated settlement as the essential means of ending the bloodshed, addressing humanitarian disaster in Syria, and addressing the problem of the security of chemical weapons and forestalling further regional instability."
The proposed conference -- which aims to drag representatives from Syrian government and the insurgency together -- offers more than a referendum on the prospects for peace in Syria. It marks a major test of whether two major powers can still shape events in a region where they are competing for influence with a new generation of players, including jihadist militants with no loyalty to Moscow or Washington; a calculating regime desperately clinging for control; and a growing roster of allies and enemies, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran, that appear committed to resolving the conflict through the use of force. Even Britain and France -- two stalwart American allies who officially support the U.S. and Russian mediation -- have been ramping up pressure within Europe for greater outside military support for the Syrian rebels.
The agreement was applauded at the United Nations, where U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.N.-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, fear a military victory by the Syrian opposition will plunge the region into greater sectarian violence. Brahimi, like his predecessor Kofi Annan, have viewed the big powers -- particularly the permanent five (P-5) members of the Security Council -- led by the United States and Russia -- as the components in forging a peace alliance in the Security Council to pressure the parties to stop fighting.
"This is welcome; this is good news," Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary general, told reporters today. Eliasson also noted that Brahimi, who had informed U.N. diplomats that he would resign, had agreed to a request by Ban stay on to support the U.S.-Russian initiative. We "now hope that all partners will seize this opportunity and really contribute to a political settlement."
But the U.S.-Russian diplomatic initiative was received with skepticism from U.N.-based diplomats and observers, who say the former Cold War powers no longer have the influence they once had to call the shots. "Lakhdar Brahimi is of the old school; he is always saying, like, ‘Mr. Annan, I can't act if the P-5 isn't united,'" said one senior European diplomat. "It's not convincing. Even if the P-5 were united I don't see what difference it would make. The people are fighting, their survival is at stake."
Some observers see the proposed Syria conference as delaying tactic, a new diplomatic initiative aimed as much at lessening international pressure for U.S. military intervention in Syria than on a workable vehicle for ending the war. "I think there is a real sense that this is a mechanism for the United States and the Russians to buy time, and so there is going to be a huge amount of skepticism going into this conference," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "I think the conference alienates the Saudis and Qataris, and disappoints the British and French -- who have been driving hard for a more aggressive line and using the chemical weapons [claims] to strengthen their case."
Gowan said the U.S. diplomatic initiative with Russia will apply "marginal pressure" on President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate a political settlement -- "though I think Assad will remain relatively confident the Russians won't throw him to the wolves." But Gowan added that Washington's diplomatic gambit may ultimately undercut what little "U.S. prestige" still exists among the rebels.
Salman Shaikh., the director of the Brookings Doha Center, an outpost of the Washington-based think-tank, which receives funding from Qatar, said there remain fundamental differences between the United States and Russia that could imperil an agreement. For instance, neither side has settled the question of what role President Assad would play in Syria during a political transition. The rebels have so far refused any talks about a political transition that did not foresee Assad's removal from power. Kerry told reporters in Jordan today that "in our judgment, President Assad will not be a component" of a transitional government. But it remains unclear whether Russia agrees with that position, or whether Assad would retain his title during a political transition.
"Russia and the U.S. still seem to be apart on agreeing on Assad's future," said Shaikh. "There is muddle and differing interpretations on the framing of this conference, reflecting earlier disagreements on the interpretation of the Geneva Agreement of last year. Until these are agreed, [Moscow and Washington] will not be able shape a viable political solution."
"Furthermore," Shaikh added. "I doubt that the U.S. will succeed in getting the ‘official opposition,' the Syrian National Council, to the negotiating table if any political solution leaves open the possibility of Assad remaining in power."
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The Swedish scientist tapped by the United Nations to lead the hunt for evidence of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria, has informed top diplomats that he is in a race against time, and that the key signatures of a chemical attack -- traces of chemical agents captured in soil and human blood, hair, and tissues -- will be increasingly difficult to obtain as each day passes.
The passage of time is only one the many challenges confronting Ake Sellstrom, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq. Sellstrom has not been allowed into Syria to collect first-hand evidence to test conflicting claims by Syria's main combatants and outside governments that chemical weapons have been used - both by the Syrian government and rebels. The inspectors -- who are operating out of offices in the Hague and staging in Cyprus -- are confronting a dizzying area of claims and counterclaims blaming both government forces and insurgents with introducing chemical agents into a civil war that has already resulted in the death of well over 70,000 people.
Over the weekend, former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who is serving on a U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, added to the confusion, telling an Italian-Swiss news agency that she had "strong, concrete suspicions" -- though not "incontrovertible proof" -- that insurgents had used the chemical agent, sarin. Her account -- which is based on interviews from Syrian refugees and reinforces the claims of Bashar al-Assad's government -- contradicts assertions by British and French intelligence agencies that they had credible evidence that it was Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. However, the commission of inquiry subsequently put out a statement saying that it "wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons by any parties to the conflict."
Britain and France, meanwhile, have dialed back their claims in recent days, indicating that, like the U.S. assessment, they lack absolute proof. "It is limited evidence but there is growing evidence that we have seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime," British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC.
For the time being, Sellstrom and his team of chemists, health officials, and munitions experts will be required to rely on evidence furnished by Syrian combatants and foreign governments; witness and victim testimony; or blood and tissue samples collected from potential victims in refugee camps outside Syria. But evidence collected so far from the scene of the crime, or compiled by a foreign intelligence agency, will be vulnerable to challenges, according to experts on chemical weapons. "If you are sitting in Cyprus and you're getting this stuff second hand it will be a very weak element," said Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector who led the CIA Iraq Survey Group study that concluded that Baghdad had destroyed most of its weapons of mass destruction shortly after the first Gulf War. For those interested in "promoting ambiguity" about the veracity of the findings "you can make a lot of mischief," said Duelfer. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was "brilliant' at sowing doubt about the integrity of the U.N.'s inspections. For instance, he noted that Lavrov has accused U.N. inspectors of possibly doctoring chemical samples to "taint the evidence," Duelfer recalled. In the end, said Duelfer, unless Moscow can be convinced to support this effort this is "just going to be a big mess."
If the risks mission failure are high -- and Deulfer and other top former U.N. weapons inspectors say they are -- Sellstrom has shown little sign of stress.
Another Swede, Rolf Ekeus, a former chief of the U.N. Special Commission for Iraq (UNSCOM) and a mentor to Sellstrom, said he was taken aback by his protégé's calm when he ran into him at the Swedish Foreign Ministry shortly after his appointment.
"What struck me was that he didn't appear afraid or scared to be facing this challenge," said Ekeus. "I think he should be scared. But he has tremendous experience in these matters and I think he was a little excited to bring that experience to bear on a complex new problem."
Sellstrom was recruited by Ekeus in the early 1990s to conduct inspections for UNSCOM in Iraq. Ekeus describes him as a "charming, good humored," inspector who was respected by his colleagues as well as his Iraqi counterparts. Sellstrom, he recalls, was more diplomatic than some of the more senior U.S. and British weapons inspectors, who had a reputation for gruffness in their exchanges with the Iraqis. ("We used to refer to them lovingly as the grumpy old men," said one former weapons inspector.)
"[Sellstrom] would be a natural leader," said Ekeus. "He has few enemies. Not even the Iraqis were terribly angry at him."
Faced with Iraqi accusations of bias by the inspectors, Richard Butler -- a former Australian diplomat who succeeded Ekeus as UNSCOM's chief -- selected Sellstrom in 1998 to lead a group of outside experts reviewing UNSCOM's assessment of Iraq's biological weapons program. Iraq claimed that it had provided UNSCOM with a full account, but that the inspectors unfairly refused to believe them. Sellstrom traveled to Iraq to interview top Iraqi officials about the biological weapons program. During the visit, then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, called Sellstrom into his office and tried to convince him that Iraq had complied with the U.N.'s demands. "Aziz used his personal authority and charm to encourage Sellstrom to change his tough approach," said Ekeus. "Sellstrom was not in a position to accommodate Aziz because of the lack of satisfactory responses from the Iraqi experts. In the end, [Sellstrom's report] report outlined several Iraqi shortcomings.... It was a disaster for the Iraqi side."
Ekeus cites the anecdote to highlight Sellstrom's mental toughness in the face of challenges from powerful players, an attribute that will be critical in pursuing any potential forthcoming Syrian investigation, in what's sure to be a highly charged political environment. But the episode also underscores the limitations of weapons inspections, even in what was the most intrusive weapons inspection regime in history. Baghdad persistently withheld documents, witnesses, and physical evidence of their weapons program in discussions with U.N. inspectors, fueling suspicions of hidden programs. But in the end, Aziz was not so far off the mark. Iraq's biological weapons program had largely been shelved after the Gulf War in 1991.
Former U.N. inspectors say Iraq offers a cautionary tale about the misuses and abuses of foreign intelligence. But they may yet prove to be a value asset to Sellstrom.
Hans Blix, the former chief of the U.N. Monitoring Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC), which succeeded UNSCOM in the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, said that American and British intelligence failures leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq should not lead Sellstrom to "ignore or reject" the findings of Western intelligence in Syria. "They have sources and contacts that have value but it should be evaluated with professional, critical attitude," he said.
Blix said that Sellstrom is an "old hand" in the chemical and biological weapons field and that his experience should be "put to good use" in Syria. But Blix cautioned that Sellstrom would be wise to "leave the political judgment" to the diplomats. If his team "sticks to an absolutely professional standard the outside pressure should be irrelevant to them. And I think that attitude serves the world best and it also serves the U.K. and the United States."
The technical challenges, while daunting, are not insurmountable. Sellstrom has informed diplomats that if chemical agents have been used in Syria, the victims would possess traces of the chemical agent in their body for up to about 3 months.
Jean Pascal Zanders, a senior researcher at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, says that traces of certain second-tier chemical agents like chlorine, which was reportedly used in Aleppo, would likely have evaporated by now. The nerve gas sarin, he said, could likely still be "detected in miniscule quantities" if one gets to the scene of the crime.
"It's possible to detect [sarin byproducts] for quite a while. I'm talking weeks, perhaps months, depending on the evaporation rates. But it is inherently "unstable and would break down pretty fast."
Zanders also noted that hospital records -- particularly autopsy reports -- could provide important clues to the possible use of chemical agents. But he noted that there was no guarantee that Sellstrom would gain access to information. In the meantime, Zanders said, he remains skeptical that sarin was ever used.
"I have serious doubts about these allegations," he said. "Nothing which I have seen from pictures or film footage have shown what I would expect to see from a sarin attack."
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Yesterday, I wrote a story -- published in the Washington Post and posted on this blog -- detailing how flawed intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program had cast a shadow over an ongoing effort to establish the facts surrounding the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. A former inspector from the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq took issue with my characterization of the Iraq effort as the "fruitless pursuit of lethal stockpiles that had long before been destroyed" and directed me to an official list of UNSCOM achievements.
It is true that UNSCOM was responsible for identifying and destroying large numbers of dormant chemical and biological weapons in Saddam's arsenals. But U.N. weapons inspections endured for so long -- more than 15 years -- because Iraq had secretly destroyed many of its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the summer of 1991, telling the U.N. it had feared U.S. military retaliation if the stocks were ever discovered.
U.N. inspectors -- unable to obtain persuasive documentary proof from the Iraqis that the weapons had been destroyed -- engaged in a largely "fruitless" effort to find them or corroborate Iraq's claims that they no longer existed. It was not until after Saddam Hussein's overthrow that the CIA's Iraq Survey Group -- headed by a former U.N. inspector, Charles Duelfer -- provided a definitive account indicating that Iraq had destroyed most of its chemical and biological weapons programs by 1991. Here's a link to UNSCOM's official achievements page for a fuller list of weapons destroyed.
"UNSCOM has uncovered significant undeclared proscribed weapons programmes, destroyed elements of these programmes so far identified, including equipment, facilities and materials, and has been attempting to map out and verify the full extent of these programmes in the face of Iraq's serious efforts to deceive and conceal," reads the UNSCOM statement.
"Examples of what has been uncovered since 1991 include: the existence of Iraq's offensive biological warfare programme; the chemical nerve agent VX and other advanced chemical weapons capabilities; and Iraq's indigenous production of proscribed missiles engines. Following these discoveries, UNSCOM has directed and supervised the destruction or rendering harmless of several identified facilities and large quantities of equipment for the production of chemical and biological weapons as well as proscribed long-range missiles."
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A few days ago, a little-known Swedish scientist with a career devoted to studying lethal warfare agents paid a quiet visit to London. He was there to examine evidence that British officials believe shows that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own people.
Ake Sellstrom's confidential mission marked the first stage in a fledgling U.N. investigation into claims that the nerve agent sarin was used in battles in at least three Syrian cities since last December. The inquiry has once again thrust the United Nations into the center of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.
For U.N. inspectors, the new inquiry is reminiscent of the days when they scoured Iraq's deserts and industrial parks more than a decade ago in pursuit of lethal stockpiles of chemical weapons that had long before been destroyed and nuclear facilities that no longer existed.
There are, to be sure, stark differences between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad's Syria. For one, the United States, which led the push for war in Iraq, appears reluctant to enter the war in Syria. For another, U.N. inspectors may never be permitted to step foot in Syria to examine the sites in question, making it extremely difficult to establish definitively whether chemical weapons were used and by whom.
But officials at U.N. headquarters also see the parallels and potential pitfalls between Iraq and Syria. Among them is a big-power rift between the United States and Russia and the reactivation of several veterans of the Iraq inspections, including Sellstrom. As happened with Iraq, any findings by the U.N. team will fuel an international debate about the wisdom of military intervention in Syria.
Its conclusions also will test the reliability of Western intelligence agencies, particularly in the United States and Britain, whose flawed intelligence served as the basis for the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. "The echoes of weapons inspections in Iraq are inescapable," said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, who managed his government's Iraq policy at the United Nations from 1997 to 2002.
Read the entire story, which ran in the Washington Post, here.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renewed an appeal to Syria to allow U.N. chemical weapons experts into the country, saying that on-site inspections "are essential if the United Nations is to be able to establish the facts and clear up all the doubts surrounding this issue."
The U.N. chief's remarks, delivered with the head U.N. chemical weapons inspector, Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, at his side, followed allegations by several countries, including Britain, France, Israel, and the United States, that chemical weapons were likely used in Syria.
The Syrian government invited the U.N. last month to conduct an investigation into its claims that rebels attacked Army forces with chemical weapons in a March 19 attack near Aleppo that left 26 people dead.
But Syria balked after Britain and France urged the U.N. chief to also investigate opposition claims that the government used chemical weapons in three cities: Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs.
Last week, President Barack Obama added his voice to the controversy, claiming that "we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria. Now, these are preliminary assessments; they're based on our intelligence gathering. We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used."
Speaking in advance of a meeting with Sellstrom on the status of the U.N. probe, Ban said that he took "seriously the recent intelligence report of the United States about the use of chemical weapons in Syria" and urged the "Syrian authorities to allow the investigation to proceed without delay and without any conditions."
Ban said that that "a credible and comprehensive inquiry requires full access to the sites where chemical weapons are alleged to have been used," noting that an advance team of U.N. inspectors is already position in Cyprus, ready to deploy inside Syria within 24 to 48 hours of receiving a green light from authorities in Damascus.
In the meantime, Sellstrom travelled to London last Monday to examine physical evidence, including soil samples contaminated with a sarin-like agent -- that Britain claims indicates the government used chemical weapons. Ban said last week that the United Nations has already been in contact with the United States to discuss its claims. "Even while waiting for Syrian consent to enter the country, they have been doing what they have to do and what they can to gather and analyze available information," Ban said. "These activities include possible visits to relevant capitals."
"This is a crucial moment in our efforts to get the team on the ground to carry out its important task," Ban said. "Today, 29 April, is the annual Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Chemical Warfare. As we address these allegations, I encourage all involved to uphold their responsibilities in enabling us to properly police these heinous weapons of massive destruction."
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U.S. and European oil and financial sanctions are imposing hardships on the Iranian public, driving up the cost of living, causing shortages of medicine and meat, and fueling popular resentment against the West, Iran’s top economic official told reporters today.
But the official, Iran’s Minister of Economy and Finance Seyed Shamseddin Hoseini, told reporters at the Iranian mission to the United Nations today the long-term impact of the sanctions would be to make Iran’s economy more self-reliant, and that Tehran would never bow to U.S. and European pressure to halt its nuclear program.
Addressing Western reporters at a breakfast of fruit, fried eggs, walnuts, and croissants, Hoseini said that U.S.-backed sanctions targeting the Iranian Central Bank have made it impossible to transfer funds to companies selling even the most basic goods to Iran. For instance, he said, foreign farmers seeking to export beef to Iran have been unable to secure money transfers to conclude the sale.
“So, as a result, our people are consuming a little bit less meat,” he said. “If you were in the shoes of the average Iranian how would you judge the current situation? What, there is no [difference] between a nuclear installation and beef?”
U.S. and European diplomats say that while international sanctions are designed to impede the government’s ability to develop nuclear weapons they acknowledge that some of the measures imposed on Iran’s oil and financial sector may inadvertently harm ordinary citizens.
But they say that they have exempted basic foods and humanitarian goods, including medicines, from a list of sanctioned goods. Tehran, they contend, bears the greatest responsibility for the plight of the Iranian people because it has repeatedly failed to abide by multiple Security Council resolutions demanding it freeze its uranium enrichment program.
Iran maintains that it has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon, and that the program is for peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity. It has argued that the West’s exemption on the import of medicines and humanitarian goods is meaningless given the refusal of international suppliers to transfer funds to Iranian banks and business out of fear they may be violating U.S. or European financial sanctions.
Hoseini claimed that the true objective of Washington and other European powers was not simply to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, but to prevent it from competing with them in the wider sciences, including aerospace industries, nanotechnology, and the nuclear sciences.
“We believe that the nuclear issue is not the central reason behind these sanctions; this is only a cover,” he said. “These are forbidden frontiers for us to cross into.” Only the big powers and their friends, he added, have “permission to cross that threshold.”
Iran “will continue our scientific progress and programs,” Hoseini said. In the meantime, the Iranian government is exploring ways to endure the sanctions, including providing rations to Iranian citizens and trying to cultivate new trade partners beyond. “Realism forces you to find new ways to get creative,” he said.
“We were continuing on a path and they created obstacles on our path,” he said. But “we will never stop behind the obstacles they put in our path.”
Despite the challenges, Hoseini said that Iran is coping.
“Don’t think for a moment now … there are no pharmaceuticals or medicines in Iran. Do not think that hospitals are unable to perform their daily health care operations or perform needed surgeries.”
Asked to comment on reports that the sanctions were crippling Iranians, doubling the price of basic staples like meat in the past month, he acknowledged that prices of “foodstuffs have increased across the board.” But, he added, “Of course, I don’t know which butcher shop you use in Iran because I have not heard prices of meat having doubled during the past month. They must have given you a raw deal.”
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This, I think, needs repeating.
When it comes to Syria, the United Nations is stuck.
You could almost be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the extraordinary number of meetings, investigations, and resolutions currently devoted to resolving a crisis that has left more than 70,000 dead and raised the specter of chemical warfare.
On March 21, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to send a U.N. team to Syria to investigate claims of chemical weapons use. I haven't spoken to a single diplomat or U.N. official who believes the team will ever be let into the country.
In the U.N. General Assembly, Qatar is asking governments to support a resolution that would bolster the Syrian rebels' international legitimacy. A final-watered down version may ultimately be passed, but like previous UNGA resolutions on Syria, its impact will be largely symbolic -- another stern demonstration of Syria's diplomatic isolation.
Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on April 19, regarding his latest efforts to persuade the warring factions to agree to a political transition. Prospects for a peaceful transition have never looked bleaker.
There's a long history of diplomatic standstills generating a flurry of diplomatic action leading nowhere. In Darfur, Sudan, the U.N. Security Council once authorized a U.N. peacekeeping mission even though it was clear Khartoum would not let it into the country. In Bosnia, the council created U.N. safe havens that it couldn't be defend.
Syria is no different.
"The UN has been entirely cut out ... and I think there is no reason to believe any of these current activities is going to make the slightest difference on the ground," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "What you see at the U.N. are diplomats creating noise to conceal the fact that they are not making progress."
It's unfair to write the U.N. off entirely.
The U.N. has been at the forefront of international efforts to raise concern about human rights abuses in Syria, while organizing the world's humanitarian response and collecting a catalogue of evidence of war crimes that could ultimately be used to hold some of Syria's worst human rights violators accountable for their crimes. And Ban has been outspoken in scolding the perpetrators of violence and pushing major powers to step up to the plate.
"On Syria, this is a most troubling situation where all the leaders of the world should really take a much more strengthened leadership role," Ban said after a meeting in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama. "I have asked President Obama to demonstrate and exercise his stronger leadership in working with key partners of the Security Council."
But the council -- the only U.N. institution that has real clout -- has been paralyzed by a big power dispute between China and Russia on one side, and the United States, Europe, and Arab governments on the other. The dispute poisons virtually every discussion.
The chemical weapons investigation is a case in point.
Last month, the Syrian government asked the U.N. secretary general to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack that killed 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers. Russia quickly rallied to Syria's defense, urging Ban to carry out the investigation as swiftly as possible.
But Britain and France, citing opposition claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, subsequently urged Ban to expand the investigation to include alleged incidents in Homs and Damascus. Ban agreed to look at all cases.
Syria, meanwhile, balked, insisting that U.N. could only investigate the single case in Aleppo. Russia has largely backed Syria's position, and made it clear that it would not allow the council to be used to pressure Syria to consent.
There has been no independent confirmation that chemical weapons were used, nor has there been confirmation that such munitions were used in some other recent cases, as alleged by the opposition. But Britain and France have presented the United Nations with information indicating numerous possible incidents of chemical weapons use.
Lacking Security Council support, Ban this week sought to coax Damascus into granting visas by announcing that the inspection team had already traveled to Cyprus, and was ready to go to Syria within 24 hours. "They are now ready to go," Ban reiterated following his meeting with Obama.
But U.N. officials and diplomats say privately that Syria, which has already refused Ban's terms for the probe, is unlikely to let the team in. "We're at an impasse," said one council diplomat.. "It doesn't look good."
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The United Nations is ready to deploy a chemical weapons inspection team in Syria within 24 hours, but Syria has yet to give the green light to enter the country, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is attending a review conference on the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The diplomatic standoff comes weeks after the government in Damascus invited the United Nations to Syria to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in an attack in the city of Aleppo. But the lack of progress suggests that Syria misjudged the U.N.'s willingness to carry out an investigation on Syria's terms.
So far, Syria has refused the U.N.'s request to expand the investigation to investigate the country's undeclared chemical weapons stockpile or to consider counterclaims by the Syrian opposition that it's Syrian forces that used chemical weapons against them. Britain and France have formally asked Ban to expand the mission to consider all claims, a move that was quickly denounced by Syria's principle big power ally, Russia, as a ploy to delay and derail the investigation sought by Damascus.
"Syria wants to limit the investigation to one site only," said a senior U.N. official. But the "secretary general feels he has a responsibility to make sure the team can investigate other claims."
Ban used his trip to The Hague to increase pressure on Syria to allow the inspectors in. Following a meeting with the Swedish head of the U.N. investigation team, Ake Sellstrom, Ban told reporters that the inspectors are ready to go.
"I can announce today that an advance team is now on the ground in Cyprus, the final staging point to undertake the mission in Syria," Ban said, adding that Sellstrom would be in Cyprus by tomorrow. "The United Nations investigation mission is now in a position to deploy in Syria in less than 24 hours. All technical and logistical arrangements are in place."
Ban said he is committed to investigating "all possible uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Now all we are waiting for is the go-ahead from the Syrian government for a thorough investigation to determine whether any chemical weapons were used in any location."
The decision to deploy inspectors comes just weeks after the U.N. withdrew most of its international staff from Damascus, citing the deteriorating security. Ban said that he is "assured" by Syrian commitments that "all security and safety will be guaranteed by the Syrian authorities." But he said the team would also rely on support from a U.N. security team.
The United Nations top disarmament official, Germany's Angela Kane, has been engaged in intensive negotiations with Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al Jaafari, over the inspectors' mandate. Last week, Reuters reported that Jaafari informed Kane in a letter that the U.N. would require only limited access to the location in Aleppo where they claimed chemical weapons had been used. He also indicated that the government wanted a say in the selection of international inspectors, a request that the U.N. rejected.
In today's remarks, Ban urged "the Syrian government to be more flexible on this matter so that this mission can be deployed as soon as possible," he said. "The longer we take, the harder it will be to gather samples and evidence."
"My position, as I have said this morning, is clear, that all claims should be investigated, without exception, without any conditions," Ban added.
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Speaking to reporters at U.N. headquarters, Ban said that his top advisors are still trying to determine the scope of the mission, the composition of the team, and the steps required to guarantee their safety.
The announcement comes one day after Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem, asked the U.N. to undertake an "impartial, independent" investigation into its claim that on March 19 "terrorists used chemical weapons in their attack in Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province." France and Britain, citing opposition claims that the Syrian government used chemical agents in an attack in Damascus, said they would urge Ban to expand the mission beyond the Aleppo case.
Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, denounced the European initiative, which is backed by the United States and many other council members, as a delaying tactic and insisted that Ban limit its immediate investigation into the single case in Aleppo. "There is just one allegation of the use of chemical weapons," he said. "This is really a way to delay the need for immediate urgent investigation of allegations pertaining to March 19 by raising all sorts of issues."
Churkin made it clear that the 15-nation Security Council would not be in a position to agree on a plan for a wider probe into possible use of chemical weapons in Syria.
But Ban said that he has authority to act on his own. The secretary general hinted that his mandate would go beyond the specific Syrian request, saying that he hoped the mission "would contribute to ensuring the safety and security of chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria. The investigation mission is to look into the specific incident brought to my attention by the Syrian government. I am, of course, aware that there are other allegations of similar cases involving the reported use of chemical weapons."
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The influential International Peace Institute (IPI) has caught the attention of the non-profit news organization, ProPublica, which earlier this week published a report on the think tank's decision to open up an office in the capital Manama, at the expense of the Bahraini government. The think tank, the headquarters of which are housed in a 1st Ave. building, across the street from U.N. headquarters in New York, has long been linked to the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon serves as an honorary chair of the organization.
At its heart, the ProPublica piece raises two key questions: Is it right for a think tank to lend its name to a country that is politically repressive and bars foreign human rights advocates and journalists from bearing witness? Is it a potential conflict of interest to have a senior U.N. official solicit money from a government whose fate he or she may be influencing at the United Nations?
The official in question is IPI's chief officer, Terje Roed Larsen, a former Norwegian diplomat who negotiated the Oslo Accords, serves as a $1 a-year advisor to Ban, and accompanies the secretary general on his most important Middle East travels, including recent trips to Tehran and Gaza.
The Security Council has also enlisted Larsen's services (according him the rank of undersecretary general) in implementing the 2004 Resolution 1559, which required Syrian forces withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of all armed groups in that country, including Hezbollah. In that job, Larsen produces biannual reports detailing violations by Syria and Hezbollah of the resolution.
But Larsen also has another day job which pays the bills. In 2005, Larsen was appointed executive director of IPI, which now pays him a $495,000 salary. That role placed Larsen in the position of simultaneously serving the United Nations in its impartial mission -- while soliciting funds for his non-profit from many governments, including the United States, Norway, and the European Union, that pursue their own more narrow national interests at the United Nations.
Under Larsen's leadership, the organization has done well, tapping into a stream of new funding from oil-rich Gulf states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two bitter rivals of Syria with ambitions for a larger political role in the Middle East and at the United Nations in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Prince Turki Al-Faisal -- a former Saudi intelligence chief and one-time Saudi ambassador to the United States -- is the chair of the IPI's international advisory council, whose members include a host of royals, including Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, as well as senior officials from Russia, the European Union, and other Western capitals.
By most accounts, IPI has become the go-to non-profit for the U.N. international diplomatic community, offering a regular menu of public events featuring top U.N. officials, foreign dignitaries, academics, and journalists. (Full disclosure: I once participated as an unpaid panelist in a discussion on reporting of U.N. peacekeeping.)
But its outreach to governments has also grown more ambitious, and it has played a kind of fixer role for some of its wealthier donors.
For instance, Larsen helped arrange for a Saudi Arabian initiative to underwrite a U.N. counterterrorism center. IPI also helped the government of Qatar develop a plan for the establishment of a program -- called HOPEFOR -- "to improve the use of military assets in disaster relief" and "help build a "global network of civilian and military practitioners."
In Bahrain, Larsen's dual-role as U.N. official and non-profit impresario has contributed to some confusion.
While the U.N. has played a rather timid role in pressing Bahrain to respect free expression, Ban has issued statements scolding the monarchy for cracking down violently on dissent and urging the government to lift protest restrictions. ProPublica cited a Bahrain press account from 2011 indicating that Larsen had extolled the climate of "freedom, democracy and institutional development."
In a telephone interview with Turtle Bay from Jakarta, Indonesia, Larsen said that his views had been mischaracterized by the Bahraini press and that he intentionally avoided interviews with reporters on his trips there. He said the articles do not cite actual quotes of his remarks.
Larsen said that Bahrain will serve as the institution's regional hub, and that its main initial focus will be the humanitarian crisis in Syria. His initial intention, he said, was to base the office in Damascus but that conditions were too violent to allow it. "We are an institute which is studying regional conflicts and we are in countries where there are conflicts," he said. "We don't go to Switzerland or Sweden because there are no violent conflicts."
Larsen dismissed the possibility that his dual roles might pose a conflict of interest, noting that his work for the U.N. Security Council was focused on "narrow events in Lebanon," and that he plays no mediation role for the U.N. secretary general that could potentially give rise to a conflict.
"This is not an issue," he said. "It has nothing to do with Bahrain. IPI is focusing on the humanitarian situation in Syria, the displaced and the refugees in neighboring countries."
Larsen's likened his venture into Bahrain as part of wider migration by Western think tanks and universities into the Persian Gulf. Blue-chip outfits like the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, have set up satellite operations in nearby Qatar.
The intellectual capital of the Middle East, it seems, is being erected with funding from oil rich sheikdoms in the heart of the Persian Gulf. Bahrain now will become a member of that club, while burnishing its reputation as host to international humanitarians.
That, according to human rights advocates, should give outside institutions like IPI grounds for pause. "Bahraini authorities can't cover up their terrible human rights record by paying for brand name institutions to set up shop there," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch . "Any independent think tank choosing Bahrain as a home should be aware that free exchange of ideas is almost impossible when many journalists or human rights advocates are barred from even entering the country."
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There are countless ways in which warfare debases a society. In Syria, perhaps one of the more glaring is the politicization of medical care.
The Syrian government has systematically denied life-saving medical care to civilians suspected of sympathizing with the country's insurgency, according to a report released today by a Geneva-based U.N. Commission of Inquiry. Syrian doctors, it added, have expressed a "well-founded fear of punishment" if they are found to have treated an enemy combatant, according to the report's findings
The anti-government opposition has not been without blame. The report suggests medical personnel live in fear of abduction by armed opposition groups who suspect they are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's government.
"One of the most alarming features of the conflict has been the use of medical care as a tactic of war," the report stated. "Medical personnel and hospitals have been deliberately targeted and are treated by the parties to the conflict as military objectives. Medical access has been denied on real or perceived political and sectarian grounds."
In an example of the risks to medical personnel, the U.N. commission reported Syrian government forces in December shelled hospitals in the Yarmouk camp, a district in Damascus that houses Syria's largest Palestinian population. In Daraa, Syrian interviewees told U.N. investigators that "official hospitals were permitted to treat only members of Government forces and their supporters." Inside hospitals, security forces carry out interrogations and arrests of patients suspects of supporting the rebellion. Sunni Muslims, who make up the vast majority of Syria's population and of the opposition, are routinely abused by Syrian government forces while receiving medical care.
The issue of medical care may have played a role in last week's U.N. hostage crisis. The U.N.'s captors, which identified themselves as the Yarmouk Martyrs brigade, initially protested that it had seized the 21 Filipino peacekeepers because they were providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian forces they were battling in the area. U.N. sources said that the peacekeepers in the Golan Heights had provided medical care to wounded Syrian soldiers, but they said that they had done the same in the past for wounded rebels.
Today's 10-page report provides a grisly snapshot of life in war-wracked Syria, where massacres are routine, extremist violence is on the rise, war profiteers exact greater exact increasing costs on desperate civilians, and bakeries and funeral processions have become military targets.
The Syrian government and its paramilitary allies continue to bear responsibility for the most serious crimes, according to the report, which cites an intensification of indiscriminate shelling, airstrikes, and the use of surface-to-surface missiles against targets in heavily populated civilian areas. One missile strike alone in Aleppo on Feb. 18 "is reported to have killed over 200 people." Four days later, another deadly missile strike killed at least 50 people, including children. "Insider accounts detail Syrian Air Force commanders giving orders to shell entire areas of Aleppo city without discriminating between civilian and military objectives," according to the report.
But the armed opposition is also behaving badly, recruiting child soldiers, beating suspected government sympathizers at checkpoints, and routinely seizing hostages for ransom.
"One interviewee," the report stated, "speaking about events in Jdeida, Damascus governate, said that kidnappings by armed groups had become ‘common' and had focussed on ‘the Christian community', as they were known as goldsmiths and were able to pay the ransoms."
The report claims that anti-government armed groups have also acquired increasingly more sophisticated weaponry in recent weeks, but that their "lack of expertise and training often results in disproportionate and indiscriminate use and fewer precautions taken to protect civilians."
The commission said it is continuing to investigate reports that the armed opposition umbrella organization, the Free Syrian Army, carried out mortar attacks on Mushrefa, an Alawite village in Homs, which appears to have directly targeted the civilian population." The report also signaled out a number of bombings in Syria by extremists groups, including the Al Nusra Front, in Damascus and other heavily populated areas.
Even more alarming, the violence in Syria is taking on an increasingly sectarian character as Syrian forces and their armed allies target civilians on the basis of religion and ethnicity, according to the report.
"In a disturbing and dangerous trend, mass killings allegedly perpetrated by [government-supported] Popular Committee have at times taken on sectarian overtones," the report stated. The U.N. commission also cited reports that armed opposition groups have been targeting Shiite and Alawite communities in Damascus, Homs and Daara. "The taking and holding of hostages along communal lines by armed groups has risen sharply in recent months."
"The conflict continues to be waged by both Government forces and anti-government armed groups with insufficient respect for the protection of the civilian population," the report concludes. "A failure to resolve this increasingly violent conflict will condemn Syria, the region and the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire to an unimaginably bleak future."
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For well over a year now, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been bombarding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with undiplomatic statements, lending the impression that his sympathies lie with those seeking his demise.
So, why in the world would an armed opposition group in Syria seize a group of U.N. observers in the Golan Heights monitoring a nearly 40-year truce between Israel and Syria and using them as a bargaining chip in their fight against Assad?
In a statement released today, the "media office" of the obscure rebel Brigade Shuhada Yarmouk, said they had acted against the U.N. because they were providing humanitarian aid to "the criminal regime troops" operating in the area. "We condemn this low act," the statement said. "Why [isn't] humanitarian aid delivered to the unarmed citizens instead of the criminal groups?" The group also posted a YouTube video showing the insurgents in front of large white truck with a U.N. insignia, vowing to hold the U.N. peacekeepers as hostages until Syrian government forces withdrew from contest.
The group's action was denounced by the Free Syrian Army's political and media coordinator, Louay al-Mokdad. "We are not responsible for this, and we are in communication with all our groups to figure out who this group is and to try to solve it as soon as we can," Mokdad said, according to the Washington Post. "This is not the right action to take. We should protect the U.N. soldiers." U.N. officials said they suspect the captors are comprised primarily of armed Palestinian refugees loosely allied with the Syrian insurgency.
It was impossible to verify the armed abductors' claims and the U.N. provided scant public detail on what had been unfolding in the area in the days and weeks leading up to today's abduction of about 20 armed U.N. blue helmets from the Philippines.
Diplomatic sources say that U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's Damascus-based deputy, Mokhtar Lamani,is trying to negotiate their release through his rebel contacts in Syria.
The U.N.'s humanitarian operations in Syria have come under scrutiny in recent months as aid agencies have faulted them for channeling a disproportionate amount of aid to government-controlled areas, leaving rebel-controlled territory wanting.
The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has countered that any limitation on their assistance to rebel-held areas was the result of fighting or the Syrian government's refusal to allow aid workers access to the region.
"Our aid," said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, "goes basically to civilians; it doesn't go to fighting forces." Haq added that the abducted U.N. peacekeepers were charged with monitoring a cease-fire along a demilitarized zone separating Syrian and Israeli forces, not distributing humanitarian aid.
But an official confirmed to Turtle Bay that the U.N. mission in the Golan had provided some medical treatment to both government forces and insurgents who were in danger of dying from their wounds.
The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, was established in 1974 to monitor a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Over the years, it has attracted little international attention.
But the Syrian civil war has increased tensions along the line of separation, raising concern that the conflict could spill into Israel. A month ago, a U.N. advisor went missing in the Golan Heights, and he has not yet been released. The U.N. also reported today that nearby fighting between rebels and the Syrian army over the weekend forced U.N. observers to evacuate an observation post, which was damaged during the fight.
Officials in New York said that the U.N. observers have faced increasing harassment in recent months from insurgents operating in the region.
The troubles began last year when Sunni residents of the town of Jabata and another nearby village took up arms against Syrian loyalists, according to a U.N. official.
Since then, a motley coalition of Syrian and foreign fighters -- including members of the Free Syrian Army, the Al Nusra Front, and armed Palestinians -- have come to their aid. "The opposition forces have taken advantage of the separation zone," said an official. "They have used it as a kind of sanctuary."
In New York, a U.N. spokesman, Eduardo del Buey, confirmed that "approximately 30 armed fighters stopped and detained a group of around 20 peacekeepers." He said that the U.N. observer force in the Golan Heights "is dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution."
Del Buey said that the observers were carrying out a regular supply mission when they were stopped near an U.N. observation post near the town of Al Jamlah, which had been the site of heavy fighting between the Syrian government and rebels.
If there was any positive to take away from today's action, it's that it succeeded in uniting the 15-nation Security Council around a crisis that has more often exposed deep rifts between the key powers. Led by Russia, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement condemning the abduction of U.N. peacekeepers on the Golan Heights, and demanding their "unconditional and immediate" release.
Following the vote, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, who is serving as Security Council president this month, condemned the armed hostage takers.
"This particular case is particularly unacceptable and bizarre in that UNDOF are unarmed and they have nothing to do with the situation in Syria -- they're on a completely different mission," Churkin said. "It seems that lately some people are trying very hard to extend the geography of the Syrian conflict. Somebody is trying very hard to blow this conflict up."
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Earlier this week, John Ging, director of operations for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), returned from a four-day trip to Mali to remind governments that the world's relief agency is short of funds for its life-saving work in Mali.
The U.N.'s humanitarian agency's 2013 appeal for $373 million, he said, has resulted in only $17 million in commitments.. That money came from only four countries -- Britain ($8million), Canada ($3.5 million), Saudi Arabia ($2 million), and the United States ($1.15 million) and the European Commission and United Nations). The U.N.'s remaining 189 countries have pledged nothing.
"We need the generosity of the international community," Ging said. "Unfortunately although Mali is in the center of media global attention the response for our appeal has been very poor.... We have not been able to mobilize the effective humanitarian response on scale of what is needed."
So, what are we to make of this shortfall?
Has the world gone cold-hearted in the face of an unfolding human tragedy in the Sahel, one which has subjected civilians to the hardships of hunger and the brutality of Islamic extremists imposing severe penalties on civilians, while Malian soldiers carry out reprisals against their suspected backers?
Have the major donors, dogged by persistent economic stress, become too poor to give generously to every cause? Or is the U.N. playing the ritual "shame game" to get countries to dig deeper into their pockets for yet another humanitarian crisis?
Humanitarian aid specialists say that the U.N.'s request for funding in Mali has simply come at a bad time, upping the competition for a limited pot of money at a time when governments are already being asked to contribute elsewhere, including roughly $1 billion to support peacekeeping efforts in Mali and more than $1.5 billion to ameliorate the severe humanitarian crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, large-scale humanitarian operations in places like Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, show no sign of abating.
"With respect to Mali -- the humanitarian appeal definitely came at a bad time given the implicit competition between it and the peacekeeping appeal, and Syria is definitely sucking all the air out of the room as well," said Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, whose organization has been forced by poor security and limited access to suspend distribution of relief in northern Mali.* Konyndyk noted that food supplies in the conflict areas in the north have been dwindling, and supply routes have been shut down. "Needs are extremely high in Mali now, and in the north needs will be higher than in 2011-2012."
"The Mali crisis in West Africa remains a much less accessible issue for most policy makers," said Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International. But he said he expects the money will start flowing as news stories converge with the realization of the political imperative to respond. "I'm not too worried that we don't see an immediate massive response after the appeal was just launched."
Complicating matters is that the sudden surge in new humanitarian crises, he said, is coming at a time "when governments are all constrained by the economic crisis."
Indeed, a look at the U.N.'s financial tracking system shows that appeals for humanitarian assistance remain chronically undersubscribed. A $6.2 million U.N. appeal for aid in Afghanistan has generated less than 1 percent in commitments. While only tiny portion of international spending on Afghanistan goes through the U.N., countries that rely heavily on the global body for assistance are also seeing shortfalls, including Mali's neighbor, Niger, where the U.N. has secured only 2 percent of the nearly $6 million in funds it has sought.
In January, Ging rang the alarm bell on Syria, warning that governments had failed to meet the country's humanitarian needs. A week later, foreign governments, including previously frugal Gulf states, met in Kuwait and pledged to spend more $1.3 billion, according to U.N. estimates. So far, only $308 million -- about 20 percent -- has been funded.
But the U.N. has been unable to generate the same kind of momentum for Mali.
A Turtle Bay-based diplomat from a country that contributes to U.N. humanitarian efforts said that the numbers can be a bit misleading, providing an incomplete picture of the humanitarian money that flows into a place like Mali (which, along with other countries in the Sahel region, has been the beneficiary of large sums of assistance in recent years). He said it doesn't reflect the fact that governments' budget cycles in many foreign capital begins later in the year, making most U.N. appeals appear woefully underfunded now.
So, does that mean that the necessary money will inevitably flow into Mali as the needs grow increasingly clear? Not likely. Global aid trends show a mixed picture.
In the years following the peak of the economic crisis, humanitarian assistance has climbed, from $12.4 billion in 2007 to $17.1 billion in 2011, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report. Two massive natural disasters -- the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods -- saw spending reach as high as $18.8 billion in 2010. But the level of unmet needs -- measured by the percentage of U.N. humanitarian aid appeals that go unfunded -- has grown by 10 percent between 2007 and 2011, meaning that the U.N. is falling further and further from its aid targets. One reason, said Konyndyk, is that the U.N. appeals are more comprehensive than they have been in the past.
But there are signs that funds may be hard to secure.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry informed Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that the upcoming sequestration cuts would slash "about $200 million from our humanitarian assistance accounts at a time when we face growing needs in Syria, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel."
Konyndyk said Washington's priorities favor Syria, which has raised some concern that scarce resources will need to be redirected from other worthy crises, including Mali.
And recent history provides a worrying model. In February 2010, the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance was forced to temporarily redirect as much as 40 percent of assistance to trouble spots like Somalia in order to ensure funding for the Haiti operation, my colleague Josh Rogin reported at the time.
Konyndyk voiced concern that the coming federal cuts will force the administration to make the painful choices they made in Haiti. "There is a real squeeze. I think we could see under sequestration some similar choices being made in order to make sure Syria is funded. There is huge pressure on the administration to increase aid even further in Syria and I don't see anything like that with respect to aid for Mali."
*(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mercy Corps had to shut down all its programs in Mali. The relief group only suspended distribution of goods in the north. Turtle Bay regrets the error
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Last week, Syrian envoy Bashar Jaafari was re-elected rapporteur of the U.N. Special Committee on Decolonization, joining representatives of Ecuador (chair), Cuba (vice chair), and Sierra Leone (vice chair) in the committee's top leadership ranks.(h/t UN Watch)
To be fair, a senior title on the U.N.'s decolonization committee -- which is charged with addressing the fate of 16 non self-governing territories, including Western Sahara and the Falkland Islands -- is hardly one of the most prestigious postings at the United Nations. (The United States withdrew from the committee on the grounds that it was anti-Western, and the 29 member committee includes no Western members.)
But still, for a country facing widespread international condemnation, it's probably not a terrible thing to have on your resume. And it provides Syria with a case to argue that it's not as isolated from the international community as the United States and its European and Arab allies insist.
Sudan, meanwhile, is expected to be granted responsibility for chairing a special session on the coordination of U.N. programs and agencies at a July conference in Geneva convened by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Sudan -- a country whose leader stands accused of committing genocide by the International Criminal Court and which faced intense criticism from the U.N. for refusing to permit humanitarian relief assistance into conflict zones in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile State -- was initially in line for the chairmanship of a session dealing with humanitarian assistance. It agreed to swap the post with Pakistan following an outcry from the United States and other Western governments. A formal decision is supposed to be announced on Friday.
The reason that controversial governments routinely come under consideration for U.N. assignments that promote causes, like human rights, that they suppress at home, is due to the influence of regional blocs that assign plum jobs.
The principal U.N. regional groups -- the Arab Group, the Asia Group, the Africa Group, the Latin American Group, and the Western European and Others Group (which includes the United States) -- have traditionally each put forth a slate of candidates for key U.N. posts, thereby forgoing the demands of an open election. The groups seek to ensure each country in their group gets a shot at serving on key U.N. committees and panels.
"This is a problem that has plagued the United Nations for decades," said one Western official. "Clearly, regional groups have fallen down on the job when they put forward embarrassingly inappropriate candidates to represent them."
The United States and other Western powers have sought to block particularly egregious candidates for sensitive posts by persuading blocs to select another government from their region to jump the queue and enter the race, forcing an election. For instance, Western powers have previously derailed campaigns by Iran, Syria, and Sudan to important positions on a range of U.N. bodies, from the Security Council to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
But those countries simply remain at the front of the line for the next opening. Over time, a persistent ambassador, no matter his country's record, can generally find his or her way on to a senior U.N. committee posting.
In some cases, the big powers have stepped aside to permit a U.N. outlier a clear path to a post. For instance, after Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi agreed to renounce his nuclear weapon program and permit U.S. inspections of its weapons sites, the Bush administration stood aside, allowing Tripoli to secure a Security Council seat and the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly.
So might the United States have allowed Iran, its nuclear negotiating partner and the current chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, a pass when it secured a vice presidency on UNICEF executive board earlier this month?
Absolutely not, said U.S. officials. "We disapprove of the selection of Iran as the Asia Group VP on UNICEF's bureau," Erin Pelton, the spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, wrote on Twitter earlier this month. "We will register our objection."
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Earlier this year, Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League mediator for Syria, determined that more than 3,000 heavily-armed U.N. blue helmets would be required in Syria to enforce a peace deal he was hoping to broker between President Bashar al-Assad's government and an assortment of anti-government armed forces and opposition politicians.
The U.N. force, in Brahimi's view, could place some military muscle behind his plan to end the country's civil war by creating a national unity government to oversee the country's democratic transition. So far, the U.N. trouble-shooter's mediation efforts has stalled in the face of diplomatic deadlock between the United States and Russia and escalating fighting by warring parties in Syria.
In recent weeks, Brahimi has achieved some progress, bringing Russian and American diplomats together for talks that raised hopes that superpower pressure on the warring parties to silence their guns could lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. Brahimi is currently weighing plans to travel to the region, including a possible visit to Damascus, to continue pressing for an agreement on a national unity government, setting the stage for the deployment of such force.
"Syria needs a peaceful, political solution that brings democratic change, while preserving the fabric of Syrian society and the peaceful coexistence of its communities," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters at U.N. headquarters yesterday, during his year-end press conference. But he voiced growing gloom about the prospects for a peaceful outcome to the crisis, saying "we do not see any prospect of any end of violence or any prospect of political dialogue to start."
Internally, U.N. officials are growing increasingly skeptical about the chances for a negotiated settlement or the wisdom of sending a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Syria to restore stability. They argue that a much larger multinational force, preferably led by European governments, would stand a better chance of filling the security vacuum in Syria..But one U.N.-based official conceded there "seems to be no appetite [in European capitals] to deploy boots on the ground.".
The new thinking comes as armed opposition forces have seemed to turn the tide in the military conflict, capturing key military installations near Damascus, threatening Syrian aircraft with newly acquired shoulder-to-air rockets, and throwing into question the very survival of the Assad government.
On Tuesday, Russia sent two warships to its Mediterranean port of Tartus in Syria to ready for a possible evacuation of Russian nationals in the event Assad is overthrown, Reuters reported, citing Russia's Interfax News Agency.
While the United States and other Western powers have long favored Assad's fall from power, there is mounting concern that his violent overthrow or abdication could trigger the dissolution of the Syrian state, including the Syrian Army, generating the kind of sectarian violence and chaos that marked the messy aftermath of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's overthrow by a U.S.-led coalition in 2003.
Only a week ago, some U.N. diplomats were confident that President Assad's military setbacks would force him to begin serious negotiations on a power-sharing arrangement, increasing the prospects for a political breakthrough, according to sources. But the pace of the rebels' battlefield achievements have quickened, lessening the likelihood that they would agree to anything but total military victory.
U.N.-based diplomats worry that an abrupt collapse of his regime would unleash a destructive wave in violence, transforming regime forces into an armed insurgents, triggering reprisal killings against the country's ruling Alawites, and fueling political and sectarian strike throughout the region.
"Everybody is aware that all tides are moving against Assad; that the tide is rolling in on him," said one Security Council diplomat. "The question is when and how."
It's the how that worries Brahimi.
The central pillar of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy -- the Geneva Action plan, which enjoys the support of the United States, Russia, and other key powers -- called for a phased transition, led by a unity government made up of regime and opposition leaders, and secured by a mutually agreed ceasefire. Under the plan, a U.N. peacekeeping mission would be deployed to monitor the transition, which would culminate in Assad's formal departure sometime in 2014, and to deter potential attacks against the country's minorities, principally revenge attacks against the ruling Alawites.
"It looks like the military balance on the ground appears to be really shifting in favor of the opposition, and that we are moving toward a military victory by one side," said a senior U.N.-based source familiar with the planning. "But there will be no ceasefire, and no end to violence, which is a much worse scenario."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, said that military developments are torpedoing Brahimi's carefully laid plans.
"I think it's now fairly clear that the Geneva [Action Plan] is dead," Gowan said. "And if Brahimi is going to have any credibility he is going to have show flexibility and respond to a potential collapse of the Assad regime. That is going to mean putting aside a lot of the conditions the Russians and Chinese are still clinging to and working with those who have the power on the ground. That's the ugly reality facing Brahimi."
U.N. officials are now beginning to incorporate this worst-case scenario into their planning. Until recently, U.N. peacekeeping officials had been developing contingency plans for a new U.N. peacekeeping mission with a mandate to implement a peace agreement between the warring factions.
The U.N. blue-helmet force was to be deployed in Damascus and in key cities along the Mediterranean coast, stretching as far north as the town of Latakia. They would secure a major supply route from the sea to Damascus, and deter attacks against vulnerable civilians. In contrast to previous U.N. and Arab monitoring missions, the United Nations would insist this time on access to high-tech intelligence, communications, and air and ground transport.
The U.N. has informally reached out to European governments to see whether they would be willing to commit peacekeepers to such a force, or to permit the U.N. to move European blue helmets currently stationed in southern Lebanon -- where they are monitoring the border with Israel -- to Syria.
But the U.N. has ruled out a role for the United States or key regional powers, including Turkey, with interest in Syria. The U.N. doesn't believe "it would be politically wise to have the Americans in the lead in that region," said the senior U.N.-based source. "And [the U.N.] doesn't believe it should be led by the immediate neighbors. That leaves the European Union, plus NATO, minus the Americans."
Gowan said that there may ultimately be a role for key European and regional powers, including France, Turkey, and Russia, to participate in a multinational force in Syria.
But he said that the United Nations -- which already has several thousand European peacekeepers deployed nearby in southern Lebanon -- may have to move in quickly to avert a bloodbath against the Alawites.
"The U.N.'s deployment plan could actually provide a basis for protecting the minorities," said Gowan, noting that the countries' largest concentration of Syrian Alawites resides near the coast. "But if you have a scenario with a high level of instability and you need to use pretty serious force to restore order, the United Nations cannot do that. You would need a multinational force, backed by NATO, and indirectly backed by the United States."
In New York, U.N.-based diplomats and officials worry there may be no political will in Washington and European capitals for an international intervention force, and that the job will be left to an ill-equipped force of U.N. blue helmets. "Can U.N. peacekeeping deal with this situation?" asked one official. "We all have doubts."
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Today's U.N. General Assembly vote elevating Palestine to a "non-member observer state" will do little to confer Palestinians the trappings of a truly independent state.
But what it will do is provide the Palestinians with a ticket to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where membership is available to all states, not just full-fledged members of the United Nations. It will also provide the Palestinians with a new lever to pressure Israel from continuing its expansion of Israeli settlements.
The prospects of Palestinian membership in the ICC, which could place Palestinian territories under the court's jurisdiction for the first time, has alarmed Israel and the United States, who fear it may lead to the prosecution of Israeli soldiers.
It has also rattled Europeans, who support the ICC but fret that Palestinian membership in the tribunal would complicate efforts to restart peace talks.
President Barack Obama has leaned heavily on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to put off his U.N. statehood bid. In a sign of the importance, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns promised Wednesday that if Abbas backed away, Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013, the Associated Press reported.
"This resolution is not going to take them closer to statehood," Victoria Nuland told reporters on Wednesday. "It does nothing to get them closer to statehood, and it may actually make the environment more difficult."
Britain has led diplomatic efforts to persuade Abbas to offer assurances that he will not join the Hague-based court until the Middle East Peace Process is concluded. Britain has also pressed Abbas to agree to resume negotiations with Israel after today's vote without preconditions."
The Palestinians' U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour, told reporters this week that his government had no intention of immediately joining the ICC but that it intended to keep the option on the table. He also hinted that the Palestinians would consider going to the court if Israel continues its settlement policy.
"I don't believe that we are going to be rushing the second day to join everything related to the United Nations, including the ICC," he told reporters this week. "But, at the same time, it is not fair for us to tie our own hands [against] all the possibilities that could be available to us." Characterizing Israeli's settlement policy as war crime, Mansour raised the possibility of going to the court if Israel continues to expand settlements.
There is a provision in the Rome Statue, the treaty establishing the international tribunal, that could apply to Israel's settlement policy. It defines, as a war crime, the "transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory."
Christian Wenewaser, Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador and the former president of the ICC's assembly of states parties, said that the Palestinians cannot dictate which specific crimes the ICC's prosecutor might choose to examine, and that it could only invite the prosecutor to investigate a general situation where large-scale crimes have been committed.
That, he noted, raises the prospects that the prosecutor could turn her sights on Palestinian extremists who have been firing rockets into Israel. Wenewaser said he believes that the Palestinians will not immediately approach the court. "I think they will let this sit for a while," said "They will just use the threat of resubmitting [a claim] as leverage to stop the settlement policy."
In January 2009, the Palestinians appealed to the Hague-based criminal court to open an investigation into Israeli conduct during a three-week operation in the Gaza Strip that began in December 2008. Earlier this year, the court's then-prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he lacked the authority to rule on the decision.
Today's votes leave the Palestinians two main options: they can either resubmit their request to the new prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as a U.N.-recognized observer state, potentially providing the court with jurisdiction on past crimes. They can also become a member of the International Criminal Court, and pursue a prosecution there.
Jim Goldston, the executive director of Justice Initiative at the Open Society Foundations, said that there are a number legal hurdles that must be crossed before the court could decide whether to take on an investigation in Israel. For one, it remains unclear how the prosecutor could determine the territory under which it can exercise jurisdiction.
It also remains unclear whether the prosecutor will have jurisdiction over alleged crimes dating back to 2002, when the ICC treaty came into force, or only those committed after Palestine becomes a member of the court. Also, the International Criminal Court's treaty grants preference to national prosecutors to carry out prosecutions, if they can demonstrate the have the means and will to do it. Israel would likely to argue that its court's are capable and willing to conduct credible investigations into alleged war crimes in Palestinian lands.
Meanwhile, Goldston said that placing Israel within the court's possible jurisdiction would help address complaints, particularly within Africa, that the court only pursues war criminals that lack powerful patrons."The ICC has been plagued by question of selectivity and alleged double standard, the idea that certain states are subject to the law, and others have political protection, and are not subject to the law. This would open up the possibility of more equitable administration of justice. I think this would be a positive thing."
But that could come at the cost of the ICC's improving relationship with the United States.
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Today's big Syria headline from Beijing: China unveils new 4-point peace initiative to end country's civil war.
The Chinese plan is, in a nutshell, a few bits and pieces borrowed from pre-existing Arab League and U.N. peace initiatives -- i.e, a phased region-by-region ceasefire, a political transition, and stepped up humanitarian relief. There's not a lot new here. And the irony is that these initiatives have, in the past, failed to gain momentum, in part, because China joined Russia in vetoing three resolutions promoting similar plans.
"A political settlement is the only viable solution in Syria," Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, according to Xinhua, which outlined Beijing's big idea:
First, relevant parties in Syria should make every effort to stop fighting and violence, and cooperate actively with the mediation efforts of Brahimi. Relevant parties should implement effective steps toward a cease-fire, for example region by region or phase by phase, expand the areas of cease-fire, realize disengagement, and eventually bring an end to all armed conflict and violence.
Second, relevant parties in Syria should appoint empowered interlocutors as soon as possible so that, assisted by Brahimi and the international community, they can formulate through consultations a roadmap of political transition, establish a transitional governing body of broad representation, and implement political transition so as to end the Syrian crisis at an early date. To ensure a safe, stable and calm transition, the continuity and effectiveness of Syria's governmental institutions must be maintained.
Third, the international community should work with greater urgency and responsibility to fully cooperate with and support Brahimi's mediation efforts and make real progress in implementing the communique of the Geneva foreign ministers' meeting of the Action Group for Syria, Mr. Annan's six-point plan and relevant Security Council resolutions. The positive efforts of the Arab League and countries in the region in search of a political settlement should be valued.
Fourth, relevant parties should take concrete steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The international community should increase humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people and ensure proper resettlement of refugees beyond the Syrian border and timely aid for those in need within Syria. The Syrian government and various parties should render full cooperation to the work of the United Nations and relevant neutral institutions to provide humanitarian assistance in all conflict-affected regions and ensure the safety of their personnel. At the same time, humanitarian issues should not be politicized and humanitarian assistance should not be militarized.
So, what are we to make of China's peace initiative?
Does it mark a turning point in its commitment to see the 18-month civil war brought to an end? Or an admission, perhaps, that Beijing is growing weary of its Syrian ally's refusal to halt a ruthlessly disproportionate response to its armed opponents, at the cost of thousands of civilian lives?
Or is this what a government does when a prominent international envoy -- in this case U.N.-Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, shows up at your door to press you to knuckle down on a recalcitrant friend? So is this just what Beijing scrapped together to appear that it's seriously invested in making peace?
Through most of the Syrian conflict, China has largely sought to avoid drawing much attention to itself, offering few ideas to resolve the crisis in closed-door Security Council consultations, while sticking to stock government talking points in public statements about the need to resolve the crisis peacefully while respecting Syria's sovereignty.
It's worth noting that while China is a major power, it's a bit player on Syria, taking its cue from Russia, which has been reluctant to ratchet up pressure on Bashar al-Assad to yield power to Syria's opposition forces. But Beijing has occasionally raised its profile -- it previously sent a high-level delegation to Middle East capitols to explain and defend its decision to veto Arab-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria - to avoid a political backlash against Chinese interests in the region.
It's probably useful that Beijing be seen backing Brahimi's mediation effort. And there is a curiously specific, though vague, call for a phased ceasefire in the proposal. But a close look at China's plan reveals that Beijing is largely restating positions previously agreed to by the international community -- including Kofi Annan's six-point plan and the Geneva Communiqué -- backed by the U.N.'s five big powers.
The Chinese plan also sidesteps controversial matters, like the fate of Assad at the end of a political transition. And there was little in China's statement that echoed Brahimi's call in Moscow earlier this week for "a real transition, not cosmetic reforms" in Syria. One Security Council diplomat dismissed the Chinese initiative as containing the same fatal flaw as its long-standing stance on Syria -- it's unwilling to apply pressure on Damascus to halt the killing.
Meanwhile, the Syrians haven't been able to get through Eid al-Adha, the Muslim religious holiday, without killing one another. "The government made the announcement that they were going to stop firing during the Eid period," Brahimi said in Moscow on Monday. Quite a few of the opposition groups did the same. Now each side is accusing the other side of having broken this ceasefire. The result is that there was no pause and the people of Syria haven't spent quiet days during the Eid."
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Turkey's U.N. envoy Ertugrul Apakan delivered the U.N. Security Council a letter tonight describing the Syrian mortar attack against a small border village in Turkey as "an act of aggression" that "constitutes a flagrant violation of international law."
The Turkish envoy called on the 15-nation council to "take necessary action to put an end to such acts of aggression and that Syria respects Turkey's sovereignty, territorial integrity and security."Apakan said that Syrian armed forced shelled the town of Akcakale near the Turkish border, killing "five Turkish civilians, all of whom were women and children, as well as a number of serious injuries" to others.
The Turkish letter marks the opening of a diplomatic campaign at the United Nations to muster wide international support against Syria. It makes no reference to Ankara's military reprisals against Syria. But it warns Syria not to bring "an immediate end" to any further "unacceptable violations" of Turkish territory.
"This is an act of aggression by Syria against Turkey," Apakan wrote. "It constitutes a flagrant violation of international law as well as a breach of international peace and security."
It remained unclear precisely what sort of action Turkey favored.
The U.N. Security Council is planning to meet tomorrow to consider the Turkish request. Before Turkey responded militarily to the Syrian mortar attack, some council diplomats had been considering pushing for a statement condemning Syria's action. Council diplomats said they are now updating the language.
Acting on behalf of Turkey, Azerbaijan tonight circulated a draft Security Council statement condemning Syria "in the strongest terms" and expressing "sincere condolences" to the Turkish government and the families of the victims. The statement demands that Syria desist from further "violations" of international law.
The statement, however, would require the support of all 15 members of the council to be adopted. Russia, which is Syria's closest ally on the Security Council, has asked for a delay until 10:00 AM (NYC time) to decide whether to back the statement.
France's foreign ministry, meanwhile, issued a statement recalling that it is a military "ally" and that Turkey enjoyed its full support.
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The Syrian war spilled over into the Turkish borderlands today, as Syrian mortars killed at least five civilians in the border town of Akcakale, triggering Turkish reprisal strikes against artillery targets inside Syria, according to U.N. and Turkish officials.
The skirmish has fueled concern among top U.N. and Arab officials that a widening conflict may become a deadly reality. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pleaded with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutolgu in a phone conversation to maintain open lines of communications with Syrian authorities to prevent the exchange from escalating into a more violence cross-border conflict.
"The secretary general has repeatedly warned that the ongoing militarization of the conflict in Syria is leading to tragic results for the Syrian people," according a statement from Ban's office. "Today's incidents, where firing from Syria struck a Turkish town, again demonstrated how Syria's conflict is threatening not only the security of the Syrian people but increasingly causing harm to its neighbors."
Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for the U.N.-Arab League special representative to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said today's cross border violence underscored a chief concern of the U.N. trouble shooter and his predecessor, Kofi Annan . "This is an example of what we have been warning about for seven to eight months," he said. "If this explodes, it will be catastrophic for the region and by its very nature will involve the proxy powers."
The cross-border incidents came as a devastating bomb attack in Aleppo marked a deadly new phase in the struggle for Syria's second largest city, highlighting the increasing escalation of violence by opposition forces in a conflict that began as a popular, and largely peaceful, anti-government uprising.
A series of four explosions -- apparently targeting a Syrian officers club and other pro-regime facilities in the Sadallah Jabri Square -- killed more than 30 people and turned a historic section of the city into rubble.
Syrian government officials denounced the bombing as a ruthless terrorist attack by suicide bombers that failed to discriminate against military and civilian victims. But supporters of the resistance said that attacks were against a military target.
"This is a legitimate target, nobody can get into that area without a military ID," said Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council. "All the people killed there they belong to the Assad regime's army."
The United Nations and Western human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, stopped short of condemning the attack, saying they did not have sufficient information to determine whether the attack targeted legitimate military installations, or whether they had recklessly endangered civilians in a heavily populated urban area.
But Fawzi said that the scale of the violence is growing daily. "The escalation is happening on both sides and we have said time and time again that the government should stop using heavy weapons, including helicopter gun-ships, and the opposition should equally cease attacks," he said. "But we are not equating the two because it is obvious the government is stronger and we ask that the government first stop and that the opposition, in turn, stop."
Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher Ole Solvang, who returned from a visit to Aleppo in August, voiced concern about abuses by opposition forces. Solvang said his group documented more than a dozen cases of extra-judicial executions of individuals suspected of serving in pro-government militias, known as Shabhiha, and the widespread use of a torture method -- the falaqa -- which involves the beating on soles of the feet, and which "seemed to be condoned from above." But he said the overall insurgent strategy was aimed more at gaining control of the town rather than sowing terror.
Solvang said the resistance in Aleppo was deeply riven between more moderate pro-democracy groups and Islamists engaged in a "battle of ideas or visions" about the future of Syria. But he said he saw little evidence to support a major role by foreign jihadists.
Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria, said today's attack does not reflect an isolated attack by a fringe extremist group, but a strike in a broader rebel strategy aimed at destroying the sense of security and stability of Syria's urban elites in the power centers of Damascus and Aleppo in exchange for their political support.
"This is all about these two major cities: they are the prize, they are the golden goose," said Landis. "The rebels have to take that away: the goal is to take away the security and stability from every Syrian because then, this government will offer them nothing."
"The trouble is the government cannot allow the rebels to just take the cities; it can't play that game because it will lose," he said. "What that means is that the cities are going to be destroyed. They are going to be turned into Berlin; they are going to be firebombed by both sides."
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For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it wasn't enough just to reiterate an impassioned call for the United States and other U.N. governments to impose a red line on Iran's nuclear program.
He literally drew it -- right before the assembled world leaders -- on a crude bomb chart that looked like it came directly out Wile E. Coyote's comic book arsenal.
In a speech that briefly glossed over the Middle East process, Netanyahu made his most detailed and impassioned case for confronting Iran, clarifying that the threshold for a military strike should be set at the point Iran produces enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon.
"Nothing could imperil our future more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told the gathering of foreign leaders. "At this late hour, the only way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting an atomic bomb is by placing a clear red line on Iran's nuclear weapons programs.
"Red lines don't lead to war; red lines prevent war," he added. "I believe faced with clear red line Iran will back down."
The Israeli prime minister has been pressing President Barack Obama for weeks to specify a precise stage in Iran's enrichment of uranium that would trigger a military reaction. Obama has repeatedly said that the United States would not permit Iran to possess nuclear weapons, but he has refused to commit to a specific red line in order to preserve response flexibility.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Obama said that while it remains committed to resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran "through diplomacy and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited."
"Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained." Obama said. "It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
Netanyahu thanked Obama for his statement acknowledging an Iranian nuclear weapons program could not be contained, and he said he recognized that international sanctions were inflicting serious pain on the regime.
But he said that more than a decade of sanctions and diplomacy have failed to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions, and that it would be irresponsible to place one's faith in cautious estimates from Western intelligence agencies that there is sufficient time to stop the Iranians from acquiring the bomb. "Our intelligence agents are not fool-proof," he said.
Netanyahu, who spoke shortly after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, devoted little attention to the peace process, simply saying the "libelous speeches" or "unilateral declarations of statehood" before the U.N. General Assembly would not further the cause of peace.
The Palestinian leader was the clear favorite in the General Assembly, receiving a standing ovation for a speech that denounced a wave of anti-Palestinian attacks by Jewish settlers, and claimed that Israeli policies were undermining the ability of the Palestinian National Authority to function -- threatening its ultimate collapse.
But his bid for international recognition of statehood was scaled back from a year ago.
"We will continue our efforts to obtain full membership for Palestine at the United Nations," he said. But for now, he said his government has "begun intensive consultations with various regional organizations and member states aimed at having
the General Assembly adopt a resolution considering the State of Palestine as a non-member state of the United Nations during this session."
"We do not seek to delegitimize an existing state -- that is Israel; but rather
to assert the state that must be realized -- that is Palestine."
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon may have defied the wishes of Israel and the United States by traveling to Tehran to attend a Summit of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), the largest international conference in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which included a side meeting with Iran's president and supreme leader.
But they could hardly have wished for a more sympathetic message to be delivered directly to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a tough speech, that was not broadcast on Iranian state television, the U.N. chief singled out Iran for censure -- not Israel -- and on its own home court.
Ban dispensed with the carefully balanced language that secretaries general traditionally use in addressing the tough issues in the Middle East.
He made no mention of the struggle of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, a perennial topic of NAM debates. There was no talk of Israeli settlements. A reference to the Middle East Nuclear Free Zone -- which has often been cited as a cause for Israeli nuclear disarmament -- was used to prod Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
"There is no threat to global peace and harmony more serious than nuclear proliferation," he told the gathering, which included Ahmadinejad, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy. "Assuming the leadership of the NAM provides Iran with the opportunity to demonstrate that it can play a moderate and constructive role internationally. That includes responsible action on the nuclear program."
Ban urged Iran to fully comply with Security Council resolutions demanding it suspend its enrichment of uranium, step up cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and resume "constructive engagement" with the United States and other big powers seeking to negotiate a deal on Iran's nuclear program.
"From this platform -- as I have repeatedly stated around the world -- I strongly reject threats by any member state to destroy another or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust," Ban added. "Claiming that another U.N. Member State, Israel, does not have the right to exist, or describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong but undermines the very principles we have all pledged to uphold."
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had pleaded with Ban not to attend the NAM summit, saying it would be used by the group's host, Iran, which replaced Egypt in the body's three-year chairmanship, to garner international legitimacy for its policies.
The main purpose of Ban's visit to Tehran was to search for a diplomatic opening to head off a possible confrontation between Israel and Iran. He urged both sides to dial down the rhetoric.
"I urge all parties to stop provocative and inflammatory threats," he said. "A war of words can quickly spiral into a war of violence. Bluster can so easily become bloodshed. Now is the time for all leaders to use their voices to lower, not raise tensions."
But the two sides were hardly in the mood to cool their heels.
Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, blasted U.S. dominance at the United Nations as a "flagrant form of dictatorship" and accused the West of arming the "usurper Zionist regime with nuclear weapons, which now pose a great threat to all of us."
In a statement today, Netanyahu replied that the "representatives of 120 countries heard a blood libel against the State of Israel and were silent. This silence must stop. Therefore, I will go to the UN General Assembly and, in a clear voice, tell the nations of the world the truth about Iran's terrorist regime, which constitutes the greatest threat to world peace."
Meanwhile, today's event was hardly turning into the diplomatic triumph that Tehran had hoped for -- and that the United States and Israel had feared. Both Ban and Morsy criticized the Syrian government, Tehran's closest regional ally, for its violent repression of pro-democracy forces in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.
"The Syrian people are fighting with courage, looking for freedom and human dignity," Morsy said, prompting the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to walk out in protest, according to a report in the New York Times. "I am here to announce our full and just support for a free, independent Syria that supports a transition into a democratic system and that respects the will of the Syrian people for freedom and equality," said Morsy.
As for Ban, he answered Syrian claims that foreign meddlers are behind the calls for democracy sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa, saying "the Arab Spring was not imposed or exported. It did not arise from an external conflict or dispute between states. It came from within -- from people, who stood up for a better future."
But while Ban faulted Syria for starting the crisis by meeting "peaceful demonstrations" with "ruthless force" he said that any solution to the crisis will require restraint by all. "Those who provide arms to either side in Syria are contributing to its misery."
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A U.N. Commission of Inquiry this week laid out a case that the Syrian government, pro-government militia, and to a lesser degree, armed opposition forces, have engaged in massive rights abuses amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
So what's the likelihood the President Bashar al-Assad and his military planners will ever have their day in court at The Hague?
For the time being, it looks pretty slim.
The Geneva-based commission, headed by Brazilian diplomat and lawyer Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has issued no call for prosecution by the International Criminal Court, which investigated and issue warrants for other world leaders, including the late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
Instead, Pinheiro has kicked the ball over to the U.N. Security Council to decide how to hold the Syrian perpetrators to account and will hand a list of suspected abusers to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, where they will lie in a sealed envelope awaiting a possible decision by some as yet undetermined court to prosecute.
Meanwhile, there remain serious hurdles to prosecution.
Syria has never ratified the treaty, known as the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), placing the government beyond the court's reach.
The treaty includes a provision that allows the U.N. Security Council to initiate an ICC investigation. But it is almost unthinkable that the 15-nation council, where Syria's allies Russia and China wield veto power, would authorize an ICC investigation into Assad's alleged crimes, or those of the armed opposition for that matter.
There appears to be little appetite in the Security Council for establishing a temporary court, as it did in the past to prosecute crimes in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.
Last April, Aryeh Neier, who recently stepped down as president of the Open Society Institute, proposed the establishment of an Arab war crimes court, authorized by the Arab League, to prosecute Syrian war criminals. But the idea has gained little traction.
European courts that assert universal jurisdiction over large-scale crimes, including genocide or war crimes, could prosecute Syrians responsible for murdering nationals from their countries, but they will be hard pressed to get them to surrender to a court in London, Paris, or Madrid.
Pinheiro, meanwhile, has claimed that his mandate does not give him the authority to recommend the U.N. Security Council authorize and investigation by the International Criminal Court, according to court advocates.
But ICC advocates contend that he not only has the authority but the obligation to do so. A call for a referral from the Security Council, they say, will add to the international pressure on Russia and China to ensure rights violators are held to account.
"Given the scale of the crimes it would seem incumbent upon the commission to make a recommendation to the council [for an ICC prosecution] regardless of its viability," said Richard Dicker, an advocate of the ICC at Human Rights Watch. "A referral to the ICC should be very high on the list of recommendations. It's an important statement of principle. There's a second more practical factor: what looks like a fixed situation today, in terms of obstacles at the council, could change in the future."
In August 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council established a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of human rights abuses in Syria dating back to March 2011 -- shortly after the government mounted a bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters.
It has since produced three written reports detailing abuses by both government-backed forces and rebels. On Wednesday, the commission concluded that there are "reasonable grounds" to assert that the Syrian government, pro-government Shabbiha militia, and armed anti-government forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country's 17-month long uprising.
But it found that the most egregious abuses were carried out by forces loyal Assad and acting "with the knowledge, or at the behest, of the highest level of the government."
The commission's findings confirm its previous claims that the warring parties committed crimes against humanity during a conflict that the U.N. says has led to the deaths of more than 14,000 people. But this week's reports marked the first time it accused the various groups with war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
The commission, which was established in August 2011 by the U.N. Human Rights Council, particularly blamed the Syrian government and the Shabbiha for carrying out the large-scale killing of Syrian civilians in the town of Al Houla, dismissing government claims that the killings were carried out by anti-government forces.
More than 100 civilians were killed on May 25 at Al Houla in a gruesome military-backed operation that marked a sharp escalation in the violence in Syria.
"The commission confirms its previous finding that violations were committed pursuant to State policy," reads the report. The commission also "found reasonable grounds" to believe anti-government opposition forces committed war crimes, including murder and extrajudicial executions and torture, but that the abuses "did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by government forces and the Shabbiha."
But the commission provides no specific proposal for an independent international prosecution.
Instead, it calls on the Syrian government to conduct its own investigation into human rights violations that is has ordered, and to hold perpetrators accountable. It also recommends that Human Rights Council beef up its reporting presence in Syria, and transmit its findings "to the Secretary General for the attention of the Security Council so appropriate action may be taken."
Thus, the prospect for prosecution remains uncertain. Moreover, the commission is due to close in September.
"The options are not good," said James Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative at the Open Society. But Goldston said he was "puzzled" by Pinheiro's decision not to explicitly call for an ICC role in Syria, noting that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and more than 20 other countries in the Human Rights Council, have. "It can only help if the independent commission would add its voice."
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that his plan to travel to Tehran later this month is "a major mistake even if it is being made with good intentions," according to a statement from Netanyahu's office.
The U.N. has not announced that Ban is planning to travel to Iran, but U.N.-based diplomats say privately that he will attend a high-level meeting of the non-aligned movement in Tehran later this month.
It will be Ban's first trip to Tehran since becoming secretary general in 2007.
While there, Ban is expected to hold meetings with the Iranian leader on a range of issues, including Iran's nuclear program and its role in Syria.
"During your tenure as U.N. Secretary General, you have acted fairly," Netanyahu told Ban, according to the statement. "This is why I was so disappointed to hear about your intention to attend the non-aligned summit that will be held in Tehran at the end of the month.... Mr. Secretary General your place is not in Tehran"
A spokesman for Ban, Farhan Haq, said "there is no trip to announce, and consequently no comment to make in response to the read out" of Ban's conversation with Netanyahu.
Ban's relationship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been extremely chilly.
He routinely criticizes the Iranian leader for refusing to comply with Security Council demands to suspend his country's uranium enrichment program. U.N. diplomats said he would use the trip to apply pressure on the Iranian government to try to persuade the Iranian leader to help calm the violence in Syria, Iran's most important regional ally.
But Netanyahu faulted his plans to visit Tehran on the grounds that it would "grant legitimacy" to a regime that has flouted its international obligations and poses an existential threat to Israel.
"To reward Iran for its impudence by a visit of the U.N. Secretary General would be a horrible mistake," the statement said.
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Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. troubleshooter, has emerged as the front-runner to replace Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
The appointment of the 78-year old Brahimi would propel another major international diplomatic figure into the middle of a U.N.-backed mediation process that has shown little sign of success. But it remained unclear today whether Brahimi had accepted the job, or whether the Syrian government would accept him.
Brahimi remains skeptical about the prospects for peace, telling associates that he could envision the Syrian civil war developing into a protracted conflict that could last for years.
Brahimi, who is best known for his peace efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a well-known figure in Syria, having played a central role in negotiating a 1989 peace deal ending Lebanon's 15-year civil war. The deal, known as the Taif Agreement, required Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon within two years.
Although Syria remained in Lebanon for another 15 years, the Syrian leadership has remained cool towards Brahimi. Another complicating factor is Brahimi's daughter, Princess Rym Ali, a former CNN correspondent who is married to Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein -- the brother of Jordan's King Abdullah II. Jordan has been active in the Western-backed effort to force President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power.
U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman today met with Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, to discuss the prospects of Brahimi's appointment.
The United States and the United Nations have routinely turned to Brahimi to undertake the most intractable diplomatic problems, and he played a central role in establishing a transitional government in Afghanistan. Later, he was recruited to help pave the way for a transitional Iraqi government. Last year, the United States approached Brahimi to gauge his interest in trying to mediate a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
In his book, Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward described the efforts of American officials to identify a prominent foreigner -- a "philosopher king" in Woodward's words -- to mediate a political deal that would allow the Americans to ultimately leave Afghanistan. "One possible candidate was Lakhdar Brahimi, the elderly United Nations diplomat who had helped engineer Karzai's rise to power after the U.S. invasion in 2001. Could he deliver this? Brahimi was 76, perhaps too old for the monumental diplomatic mission."
Like Annan, Brahimi is member of a group of retired statesmen and women known as The Elders. This morning, the group issued a statement urging the warring parties in Syria, as well as their foreign backers, "to work together to end the bloodshed and move the country away from the abyss."
Brahimi, who lives in Paris, issued his own statement: "Syrians must come together as a nation in the quest for a new formula. This is the only way to ensure that all Syrians can live together peacefully, in a society not based on fear of reprisal, but on tolerance, In the meantime, the U.N. Security Council and regional states must unite to ensure that a political transition can take place as soon as possible. Millions of Syrians are clamoring for peace. World leaders cannot remain divided any longer, over and above their cries."
If appointed, Brahimi would likely work closely with a reconfigured U.N. political mission inside Damascus, though he would probably not live in Syria. Asked if Brahimi would take on the new role, Eduardo del Buey, the U.N. deputy spokesman, remained vague: "We have nothing to announce. If and when we have something to announce, we will announce it."
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Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has directly appealed to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for help in securing the release of more than 50 Iranian nationals seized in Syria and Libya over the past week, saying he feared many of them could be killed in Syria in the coming hours.
The request came just a day after three of 48 hostages captured Saturday by rebel forces in Damascus were reported killed during a government air attack on rebel positions. It is part of a broader diplomatic effort by Tehran to secure the hostages release.
Salehi today visited Turkey to press the government help rescue the Iranians while the Iranian government warned the United States, which has provided limited support to the rebels, that it would be held responsible for the fate of the Iranians. Iran's security chief, Saeed Jalili, meanwhile met with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, where he vowed Iran's support for the beleaguered Syrian leader.
The Syrian rebels confirmed that the three Iranians had been killed and threatened to kill the others unless Syrian authorities halted their air assault. "They were killed when the aircraft attacked. One of the houses they were in collapsed over their heads," rebel spokesman Moutassam al-Ahmad told Reuters. "We will kill the rest if the army does not stop its assault. They have one hour."
The Free Syrian Army maintains that the Iranians are members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps who had been collecting intelligence on Syria's rebel movement. The Iranians have insisted that they were Shiite pilgrims traveling to Sayida Zeinab, a Muslim shrine outside of Damascus. They were abducted on their way to the airport in Damascus on Saturday, according to Salehi.
In a letter to Ban, Salehi said that seven members of the Iranian Red Crescent Society had also been abducted in Benghazi on July 31. He said they were in Libya at the invitation of the Libyan Red Cross when they were kidnapped.
But he expressed particular concern over the fate of the Syrian nationals in Damascus, saying "the hostage takers have threatened to kill the remaining captives in the coming hours."
"The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran calls for the immediate release of its abducted nationals and is of the view that using the hostages as human shields violates the international law and human rights of these innocent civilians," Salehi said. "I would like to seek the cooperation and the good offices of your excellency for securing the release of these hostages."
A spokesman for Ban said the U.N. was studying the letter and had not yet responded. But Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban, said that the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria is playing no role in the negotiations for the Iranian's release.
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Speaking to the press outside the U.N. Security Council in New York on Tuesday, Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observer mission in Syria, and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, put on a brave face, assuring the Syrian people that the United Nations would not abandon them in their hour of need.
Despite Mood's decision on Saturday to halt the mission's 300 unarmed monitors from patrolling Syria's trouble spots, the Norwegian officer said the mission would stay put and might even resume patrols if the violence calmed down. "We are not going away," Mood said. But "we need to see a change if the activities of the mission, the current configuration under the current mandate, are to be meaningful."
But behind closed doors, Ladsous made it clear to the council that the U.N. monitoring mission, as it is currently configured, had outlived its usefulness and that it would be pointless to renew its mandate, or to simply reinforce it with additional monitors, when its mandate expires on July 21, according to council members present at the meeting.
The problem, Ladsous explained, is that a recent up-tick in violence in Syria had simply obliterated the cease-fire the monitors were there to enforce, and there was no sign that the Syrian government or the armed opposition had any intention to enter into political talks aimed at establishing a new government.
Despite the setback, Ladsous said that the U.N. had no other choice but to explore other options for rescuing Kofi Annan's troubled six-point peace plan for Syria, saying "there is no other plan; there is no other game in town."
Ladsous gave the Security Council a range of options to select from, everything from the total withdrawal of the mission from Syria to creation of a new observer mission, secured by an armed protection force of at least 300 blue helmets. "We have to think ahead and think about various options," he told reporters after the session.
Behind closed doors, Ladsous said the first option was undesirable while any plan to deploy armed troops in Syria might be politically impossible, encountering resistance from the Syrian government, whose consent would be required, and from the countries supplying troops to the mission.
That left a third option, which appears to have the most support within U.N. circles: The U.N. would establish a small political liaison office, supported by an enlarged civilian component, including human rights monitors, political officers, and other U.N. experts. The thrust of their mission would be prodding the two sides into entering political talks and implementing confidence-building measures. They might leave a few military observers in the mission to form the core of a future monitoring mission in the event that a political settlement emerges.
The new thinking follows one of the most dangerous weeks for the monitoring mission. Last week, U.N. monitors were been targeted at least 10 times by close fire or hostile crowds, and the sites that the monitor teams visited faced indirect fire almost daily. Two U.N. vehicles were attacked last week by an angry mob hurling stones and wielding metal rods outside the town of Haffa.
Unknown shooters sprayed multiple rounds of bullets into the vehicles as they left the site, a U.N. spokesman Kieran Dwyer told Turtle Bay last week. Mood, meanwhile, told the council that seven other U.N. vehicles were damaged over the past week. "I halted the operations of UNSMIS because of the violence and because it is difficult to implement the mandated task under these circumstances," he told reporters.
Dwyer said the U.N. monitoring mission may be prepared to undertake specific missions in the event they have agreement from the warring parties. For instance, the U.N. monitors are "ready" to "monitor the evacuation of civilians" from the town of Homs, where civilians have been trapped for more than week in the middle of battle, but only if the Syrian government and the armed opposition agree to let them. The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, sought to carry out the evacuations of civilians and the wounded in Homs under an agreement with the warring parties, according to Reuters. But they had to retreat after hearing nearby gunfire. They could not identify the source of the fire.
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With the United States and Russia still deadlocked at the United Nations over the best way to stem the violence in Syria, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) stepped into the void again today, saying it's time for the United States to bypass the U.N. Security Council and assemble a coalition of military powers to confront Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and end the killing of thousands of Syrians.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to commit to intervening militarily in Syria, preferring to support a U.N-brokered peace effort led by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. But Annan's mediation effort stalled this week as an upsurge of violence forced a team of U.N. monitors to suspend their operations. The Security Council will meet tomorrow afternoon to consider next step from a slim menu of options.
Efforts by the United States and its European partners, meanwhile, to impose sanctions against Assad have run into opposition from Russia, which is reportedly sending a contingent of marines to the Russian-controlled port of Tartus in Syria.
McCain said it is unconscionable to allow Russia to veto concerted action against Assad, and recalled that President Bill Clinton overcame previous efforts by Russia to check American power, leading a NATO coalition against Yugoslavia in 1999 to end "ethnic cleansing" of the Kosovars by Serbian security forces.
"Rather than insisting that we cannot act militarily without a U.N. Security Council resolution ... we should follow President Clinton's example from Kosovo: we should refuse to give Russia and China veto power over our actions," McCain said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute.
McCain said that "many of our allies are willing to do much more but only if the United States is with them," he said. "We should make U.S. airpower available along with that of our allies as part of an international effort." It remains unclear whether many of America's allies would indeed be prepared to intervene militarily in Syria with or without a U.N. Security Council mandate.
McCain resurrected a proposal, previously floated by French and Turkish diplomats, to establish a series of safe havens along the border with Syria to channel humanitarian assistance to distressed Syrians. But those initiatives seemed half-hearted, and were subsequently withdrawn.
"These safe havens could become platforms for increased deliveries of food and medicine, communications equipment, doctors to treat the wounded, and other non lethal assistance; they could also serve as staging areas for armed opposition groups to receive battlefield intelligence, body armor and weapons -- from small arms and ammunition to antitank rockets -- and to train and organize themselves more effectively perhaps with foreign assistance."
There may be some support for such an initiative from countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have already been supplying the rebels with weapons. But Russia has made it clear that anyone considering mounting a serious attack against the Syrian government may be playing with fire.
Anatoly Isaykin, the general director of Rosoboronexport, the state arms export agency, told the New York Times that it has supplied Syria with an advanced missile defense system that could shoot down planes or sink ships."This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this," he said.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.