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
U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to present the U.N. Security Council tomorrow with a darkly pessimistic assessment of peace prospects in Syria, where political repression and civil war have left more 60,000 people dead, according to U.N. estimates, and threatened to plunge the Middle East into a wider sectarian conflict, according to U.N. diplomats and officials.
Since his appointment last August, Brahimi has promoted a plan for a negotiated settlement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition that would lead to the establishment of a transitional government headed by opposition leaders and members of Assad's security establishment. Brahimi has invested his hopes and prestige on brokering a deal between the United States and Russia to compel the warring parties to accept peace.
But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month rebuffed Brahimi's plan in a public address to Syrians, denouncing the armed oppositions as "terrorists" and "criminals" that needed to be confronted with arms. "They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell," said Assad. The armed opposition has also made it clear it is not willing to negotiate as long as Assad is in power. And talks between the United States and Russia, meanwhile, are stalled over the fate of Assad.
Brahimi was "quite negative" about the prospect for a negotiated settlement in discussions with Security Council diplomats during the past week. He told them that he has no intention of outlining a specific new plan to break the current impasse, according to a council diplomat.
"The guy is stuck; he has no good news," added a senior U.N. colleague. "Everything he has tried to do is not working."
The U.N. assessment of the fighting has evolved since early December, when senior U.N. officials believed that Assad's regime was on the verge of collapse. Today, the balance of power has returned to a "military stalemate," according to a senior U.N. official.
The official said that Brahimi continues to believe that a negotiated political settlement presents the greatest hope of averting a chaotic collapse of Syria's institutions. And he will continue to promote it. But he "doesn't hide the fact" that the two sides are equally committed to fighting it out.
"The picture therefore is very grim," the official said.
Brahimi remains committed to pressing the U.N. Security Council's key powers, principally the United States and Russia, to coalesce behind a common position. Ironically, the official said, Brahimi believes that the two governments' assessments of the crisis are not that far apart, but it has been difficult to bridge the gap.
Moscow has expressed fresh doubts about Assad's prospects for survival, but it has shown little willingness to join the United States and other Western powers in ratcheting up pressure in the U.N. Security Council on Assad to step aside.
In an interview this weekend with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Assad may have made "a fatal mistake" by failing to move earlier to reach a political deal with the "moderate opposition" in Syria. "I think that with every day, with every week, with every month, the chances of him surviving are becoming less and less," said Medvedev.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- generally a more reliable barometer of the Russian policy -- insisted that Moscow, Damascus's longstanding military ally, was "never enchanted with this regime. And we never supported it," he told reporters. "And all of our actions, aimed at helping to fulfill the Geneva agreement to form the transitional body, only confirm that we want the situation to stabilize, and the creation of the conditions that Syrians can themselves decide their fate -- of their own people, their own state, their own leadership."
Western diplomats said that while they welcome Lavrov's remarks they say Russian officials have previously distanced themselves from their long-time ally only to come to his defense in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has blocked three attempts by the West to threaten to punish Assad.
"We noticed the [Russian] comments and we're pleased to see them," said a council diplomat. "But it's not something we haven't seen before. If [President Vladimir] Putin had said them we'd be reacting quite differently."
"Our assessment at this point in time is pretty sobering: there has been no movement by Assad, nor by the Russians," added a Western diplomat. "They have not come forward with anything to support Brahimi."
In a sign of big power discord at the United Nations, the permanent five members of the Security Council will hold off on plans to meet Brahimi until after he has briefed the council. (A dinner has been scheduled for Tuesday night.) Diplomats said that the big five would likely have met before if there was any hope of forging a common position.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was not enough to leave it to the Syrians to resolve the crisis on their own. At a Paris conference of the Syrian National Coalition, Fabius said that the international community must bolster the opposition's moderate forces lest Islamic extremists take charge in Syria.
"We must give the Syrian opposition the means to support its people, urgently and tangibly," he said. "Because let's be clear: faced with the collapse of a state and a society, there is a risk of extremist groups gaining ground. We cannot let a revolt, which began as a peaceful and democratic protest, break down into a clash of militias. It is in the interests of the Syrian people and all of us."
Back at the U.N., there was growing despair about the chances of a peaceful settlement.
"We are extremely pessimistic of any chance of any political settlement," said another Security Council diplomat. "This is a conflict which will be resolved over the very long term. We know both sides have decided to fight to the death."
"Brahimi has good intentions but its been very clear from the beginning that his mission was impossible," the official said. "Not sure he will last very long in his current position, not because he will be kicked out but simply because he will draw the conclusion that it's a desperate situation."
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Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and reportedly the favorite to succeed Hillary Clinton, asked to have her name withdrawn for consideration as the America's new secretary of state, the culmination of months of political attacks by Republican lawmakers, and intense scrutiny of her wealth, blunt diplomatic style, and relationship with African leaders.
Rice, 48, appeared destined this fall to serve as America's next top diplomat as President Barack Obama's second-term leader of Foggy Bottom. But her prospects plummeted after a trio of Republican senators -- John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) -- mounted a sustained attack on Rice.
They suggested that Rice may have willfully misled the public in a series of Sunday morning talk show interviews in which she characterized the September 11 attack on Benghazi, which led to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. nationals, as likely a spontaneous reaction to the broadcast of an anti-Islamic web video.
The account later proved untrue, and evidence soon emerged pointing to a more targeted strike on the U.S. consulate by Libyan Islamists linked to al Qaeda. But the GOP charges against her never stuck, because Rice's account was largely consistent with internal talking notes she had received from the Central Intelligence Agency and because she had left open the possibility that al Qaeda or one of its affiliates may have been involved in the attacks.
In November, Obama rallied to her defense, telling reporters at a White House press conference that Rice had "done exemplary work" at the United Nations. "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said with gusto. "For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi...to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
But McCain never relented as opposition in the Republican camp widened, drawing in Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), which made it clear that Rice was headed for a contentious Senate nomination process. Rice, meanwhile, faced a flood of more critical coverage of her tenure as a young U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the 1990s, and her role in shielding a close African ally, Paul Kagame, from scrutiny at the U.N. for his government's alleged role in backing a brutal mutiny in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I am highly honored to be considered by you for appointment as Secretary of State," Rice wrote in a letter to the president. "I am fully confident that I could serve our country ably and effectively in that role. However, if nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly -- to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."
Rice said in the letter that she looks forward to continuing to serve the president and the country as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., though rumor has it that she might be going back to the White House or National Security Council.
President Obama issued a statement from the White House praising Rice as "an extraordinary capable, patriotic and passionate public servant" who has played an "indispensable role in advancing American interests" at the United Nations.
"While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks," said the statement, "her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admiral commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first."
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Libya's president Mohammed Magarief today contradicted American claims that the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic film, telling NBC's Anne Curry in an interview broadcast this morning.
"It has nothing to do with this attack," said Magarief, noting that the assailants used rocket propelled grenades and mortar fire in the attack. "It's a preplanned act of terrorism against American citizens."
The remarks came more than one week after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued that the attack, which killed four American nationals, including U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, had been triggered by popular anger from Libyan Muslims offended by the film.
"Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous -- not a premeditated -- response to what had transpired in Cairo," Rice told ABC's "This Week." "We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the...consulate...to replicate that sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons."
Rice's account has come under scrutiny in the following days as the administration's explanation for the attack evolved.
Republicans have criticized the account of the attack, suggesting that the Obama administration is seeking to mask the facts. They have seized on the fact that President Barack Obama has not characterized the attack as an act of terror, even though other senior administration officials have, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"It is troubling that President Obama refuses to call the Libya attacks on the anniversary of 9/11 an act of terror," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "For weeks President Obama and his administration have failed to acknowledge the facts behind the Libya attack."
Asked to explain the discrepancy, Rice's office referred Turtle Bay to White House spokesman Jay Carney's reaction to the Libyan president claim that the U,S. consulate had been targeted in a pre-planned terror attack. "Over the course of the past two weeks, this administration has provided as much information as it has been able to."
"It continues to be the case that we provided information based on what we know -- not based on speculation but based on what we know -- acknowledging that we are continuing an investigation that will undoubtedly uncover more facts, and as more facts and more details emerge we will, when appropriate, provide them to you."
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Last week, the foreign policy punditry, myself included, had declared the U.N. role in Syria all but dead.
But of course no U.N. diplomatic initiative ever truly dies.
Ban Ki-moon has vowed to conduct a global search for a new envoy to replace the joint U.N.- Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who announced he would step down later this month, saying it was impossible to compel the combatants in Syria to put down their guns while the Security Council's big powers squabbled over competing strategies.
France's top diplomat Laurent Fabius today announced he is organizing a Security Council meeting for foreign ministers on August 30 on the grounds that the 15-nation body "cannot remain silent in the face of the tragedy playing out in Syria," according to a statement released today by the French Foreign Ministry.
So, it should come as no shock to learn that the United Nations leadership is scrambling to convince the United States, Britain, and France, to allow the U.N. to maintain a presence in Syria after the mandate for the monitoring mission expires on August 19. The United States has argued that it's unconscionable for the U.N. monitors to remain in Syria to enforce a non-existent cease-fire agreement. They are like "sitting ducks," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told the council.
But the United Nations is reluctant to be seen abandoning the Syrians in their hour of need. The U.N. chief is expected to present the Security Council on August 16 with a plan to maintain a presence in Damascus beyond the end of the month.
Russia and China have called for keeping the U.N. mission in Syria as it is, saying it has kept the council informed about events on the ground and maintained an open line of communications with the warring factions. "Some useful work is being done by this mission," Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. ambassador told reporters last week. "It's is not obvious at all what the strategy might be behind the call to terminate the mission.
Iran, meanwhile, appeared to be looking to the U.N. mission for help in securing the release of more than 40 Iranian hostages, though U.N. officials said the monitors were playing no such role.
Any new U.N. mission, which may or may not require a new Security Council mandate, would help coordinate the U.N.'s ongoing humanitarian activities in Syria, but more importantly, it would devote its attention to maintaining contact with combatants on both sides.
Responsibility for managing the mission may be transferred from the U.N. peacekeeping to the department of political affairs, which is headed by a former U.S. State Department official, Jeffrey Feltman.
The current chief of peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, signaled the U.N.'s intention to remain in Syria in a closed-door briefing to the Security Council last week. He said that the U.N. was still playing a role in aiding the efforts of U.N. relief organizations and that it was maintaining contacts with the key warring factions.
For the moment, the discussions about the fate of the mission have naturally been overtaken by events on the ground in Aleppo, where the Syrian government has launched a ground offensive aimed at rooting out rebel forces.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, wrote in the Washington Post today that the U.N. would be needed in Syria once the fighting ends.
"Washington should remain open to an active U.N. role in finalizing a transitional road map once the conditions for a new order are in place," Khalilzad wrote in a piece that urged the United States to arm the rebels while encouraging a military coup. "The United Nations has played such a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan, among other places, where U.N. special representatives catalyzed a process to establish an interim regime, draft a constitution and hold elections."
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Russia and other key powers have signaled support U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's plan for a political transition leading to the establishment of a national unity government, according to U.N. based diplomats. But Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, cautioned this morning that no final agreement has been concluded.
Annan will host a meeting in Geneva this Saturday of key foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, to seek and endorsement for his latest plan to end a bloody 16-month uprising that has left more than 10,000 dead and raised fear of a widening sectarian conflict engulfing the region.
Annan hopes to use the meeting to galvanize support among key global and regional powers, particularly the United States and Russia, for his transitional plan, and increase pressure on the Syrian government and the opposition to accept it.
Annan's plan -- which is detailed in a three page non-paper that has not been made public -- would call on the key players in Syria and their foreign supporters to end the violence and create an "environment of calm and peace that will allow a transition," according to a U.N.-based diplomat briefed on the plan.
If those conditions are met, Annan would lead a mediation effort aimed at forging a national unity government comprised members of the Syrian government and individuals drawn from the disparate opposition. But the new government would "exclude those who are detrimental to stability and reconciliation and the transition," according to the diplomat. Russia, the official said, has "signaled to Annan that they can accept the plan."
The plan for a national unity government, which was first reported last night by Bloomberg and Reuters, makes no mention of the what role President Bashar al-Assad might play in a new government, according to a diplomat familiar with the plan, but diplomats who favor his departure say that it is impossible to see the Syrian president as anything but an obstacle to a stable transition.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the Security Council earlier this month that Moscow was not "wedded" to President Assad and would agree to his departure as long as it resulted from an agreement by the Syrian government and the opposition. It remains unlikely, however, that Russia will force Assad's hand.
Lavrov voiced irritation that elements of the
Annan plan had been leaked to the press ahead of the Geneva meeting. "There
are no agreed drafts. Work on a possible final document continues," Lavrov
said. The fate of Assad "must be decided within the framework of a Syrian
dialogue by the Syrian people themselves," Lavrov told a news conference
with the Tunisian foreign minister, according to a report by the French news agency, AFP.
"Foreign players should not be dictating their solutions to the Syrians.
We do not and cannot support any intervention or solutions dictated from
Clinton and Lavrov are scheduled to meet on Friday in St. Petersburg, where they will see if they can narrow their differences over Syria. But diplomats said the United States and Russia still differ sharply over the best course for halting the violence there, where the pace of killings, which dipped in the days following the April 12 ceasefire agreement, has since returned to pre-ceasefire levels, according to top U.N. officials.
The Annan paper also calls on the Syrian parties to stop the violence, end all human rights abuses, and guarantee the protection of minorities and accountability for perpetrators of the worst abuses.
In anticipation of the new approach, the U.N. peacekeeping department is preparing plans to change the mandate of the U.N. Supervising Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) from monitoring a non-existent ceasefire agreement and patrolling Syria's conflict ridden towns to mediating an end to the conflict. The final configuration of the new U.N. mission will have to be approved by the Security Council.
Annan's plan for a political transition had stalled earlier this week over Russia's reluctance to endorse it and over the composition of the negotiating bloc -- or "action group" -- that would be invited to participate in this weekend's meeting.
The action group includes the foreign ministers of the five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China -- plus Turkey, the secretaries general of the United Nations and Arab League, and the foreign ministers of Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, all of whom chair Arab League committees concerned with Syria.
Annan wanted Iran, one of Syria's closest allies, and Saudi Arabia, a military supporter of Syria's armed opposition, to participate in the meeting. But Clinton had made it clear to Annan that she would not participate if Iran attended the meeting. In a compromise, Annan decided not to invite either Tehran or Riyadh, but to brief the two governments on the outcome of the meeting.
In New York, Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, told reporters on Wednesday that "a very important fact that cannot be ignored by anybody is the influence and constructive role that the Islamic Republic of Iran has in the region. So if some powers do not want to benefit from this influence and constructive role that's their problem." But, he added: "from the beginning we have supported Mr. Kofi Annan's plan and we believe that's the best way to resolve the issues in Syria. Any kind of consultation by [Annan] with the Islamic Republic of Iran is welcomed any time."
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She called him duplicitous.
He said she needed to watch her "expletives" and behave a bit more Victorian.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, have been slinging insults at each other as their governments have sharply diverged over crises from Libya to Syria.
So what does Rice really think of her big power sparring partner?
"Look, we've had a little fun," she said, recalling how she once projected an image of Churkin's face inside the head of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas character on the wall of the Security Council. "On a personal level, I think I am not ashamed to say [we] have a lot of fun together. We fight, we laugh and sometime we're in agreement and sometimes we're not."
In recent weeks, the American and Russian envoys have mostly been fighting over their sharply diverging approaches to Syria, where the U.S. is supporting an Arab plan to nudge President Bashar al-Assad from power, and Russia is backing its own competing initiative that would preserve a role for the Syrian leader in any political settlement.
On Monday night, Foreign Policy's editor in chief, Susan Glasser, AfPak channel editor Peter Bergen and I sat down with Ambassador Rice at an event organized by the New America Foundation to discuss her views on her Russian counterpart, Russia and China's double veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria this past weekend, and her prospects for becoming the countries next U.S. secretary of state -- if President Barack Obama wins reelection.
Here we've compiled a few highlights from the event, starting with a replay of some of the diplomatic wrangling that proceeded Russia and China's historic double veto, which killed off a Western- and Arab-backed resolution condemning Syria's repression of demonstrators and endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition in Syria.
Rice maintained that the there was a moment when it looked like the council had secured agreement during "roller-coaster" negotiations, only to see China and Russia backtrack. "I thought at a few points it was doomed to fail but "we ultimately…hammered out what we thought was a compromise that could be sold in everybody's capitals. We were careful in how we framed that with the press. It was something literally all of us needed to send back for guidance…we all hoped we might be in a position to get a yes after that."
That was not to happen.
Russia's foreign ministry declared the draft unacceptable on Friday morning, privately informing their counterparts that they would propose some amendments. But Moscow only formally presented the amendments to the council as it prepared to hold a scheduled vote on its resolution. A last minute meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich on the sidelines of a security conference failed to close the gap. "The amendments that were tabled were widely viewed as not only too late but wrecking amendments, amendments that would have gutted the heart of the resolution," said Rice. "It was clear at that stage that we were at an impasse and it I was equally clear that with the killing intensifying on the ground and reaching the horrific levels that it did on Saturday that there was no way the council was going to do as the Russians had sought which was too delay this vote."
But even in the minutes leading up to the vote, representatives from key Arab and Islamic governments, including Egypt and Pakistan, made their final effort to lessen the blow, pressing China to break ranks with the Russians, according to Rice."Just before the vote, a throng of Arab ambassadors encircled the Chinese ambassador, [Li Baodong], and were pleading with him not to stand with the Russians in vetoing the resolution."
Ambassador Churkin recently told me that as a Russian diplomat it is not easy to ditch close allies, and that Moscow was more loyal to its friends than others. Many in the international community, he said, appreciated Russia's stance. But Rice contended that Russia and China will pay a steep political price for its decision to block the Arab League initiative. "I think you've heard the prime minister of Qatar [Hamad bin Jassim and [Arab League Secretary General Nabil] Elaraby both speak of the damage that they believe Russia has done in vetoing the resolution potentially perhaps, probably giving Assad a license to kill," said Rice. "I do think that when the dust settles and when there's a democratic government in Syria they will not forget recent history anymore than the Libyans have forgotten recent history. It will be a very different landscape that the Russians and Chinese are looking at and they may look back on this…as something they wish they could take back."
"This was the Arab members all together coming to the Security Council for something quite specific, it wasn't the use of force it wasn't sanctions, it was blessing a political transition and I think we certainly thought that was an initiative that was worthy of strong international support and U.S. support in the council," said Rice. "The fact that it was blocked by an ever more isolated Russia and China may in the short term serve to embolden Assad but I think over the…middle to long term will in fact weaken him and embolden the region to stand ever stronger in favor of their goal which is a democratic transition."
In defending its decision to cast a veto, Russia has maintained that it had acted to halt the West from using the Security Council, as it had in Libya, to bring about regime change in Syria. Churkin contends that the West abuses the Security Council in Libya by using a resolution crafted to protect civilians to overthrow an internationally recognized government. Rice disputed that claim.
"First of all, using Libya as an excuse to do the wrong thing on Syria is completely disingenuous. We made very, very clear -- I made very, very clear -- in laying out to the Security Council what this authority would entail. The protection of civilians, as mandated and drafted, in what became Resolution 1973, was going to involve air strikes against [Muammar] Qaddafi's command and control centers, air strikes against moving columns, air strikes against any asset of the regime that would threaten civilians. We discussed this at great detail and we, in fact, debated language that laid all of that out in great specificity so that countries could not claim that they didn't know exactly what they were granting when passing that resolution," said Rice. "We wanted the council to make a clear eyed decision. If they hadn't supported this it wouldn't have happened…But in voting for it, or not opposing it, the council gave a clear-cut green light. Now there may be some cynical folks who say that perhaps the Russians and the Chinese were trying to give the coalition -- NATO, and Western and Arab powers -- enough room to hang themselves and they're frustrated that that wasn't exactly the outcome. I don't know. But I do know it was very clear what they were voting for and the outcome was one that was potentially foreseen ... although I understand that you have to be somewhat nuanced to see it. But the resolution and the actions of NATO really were genuinely to protect civilians, they were not designed for regime change…What transpired was that, in addition to the NATO air campaign to protect civilians, [there was] growth and transformation of the opposition. They cohered ultimately into a sufficiently capable multi-front force to ultimately topple Qaddafi."
The U.S.-Russian rift over Syria has drawn some comparisons in Washington to the diplomatic paralysis that plagued U.N. diplomacy at the height of the Cold War. Rice challenged that comparison, saying that while the two powers different sharply over important issues, they have worked closely on a range of others. "I don't think…the difficulties we have had in the wake of the Libya vote are necessarily indicative of a return to the Cold War. In so many ways we're past that. In my three years, the council has passed very important and broad-reaching sanctions against Iran [and North Korea]. We have together supported the emergence of an independent South Sudan. We have without rancor or difficulty backed important U.N. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq [among many other issues]. There are going to be issues that are difficult. We've had our share of those of late and they…divide us and even get rancorous. But I don't think is a fair characterization of the body of work that we've been doing over the last several years and I expect will be doing going forward."
Speaking of issues that divide, I asked Rice about the prospects that the Security Council could be used to rally greater economic pressure on Iran. I told Rice that I'd recently asked Churkin if he would consider new sanctions against Tehran and he said: "No chance, no chance, no chance…ever." Asked if Churkin is right, Rice said that it may be difficult to reach agreement. She explained that Russia and China, frustrated that they had imposed U.N. sanctions, were infuriated that the United States and Europe followed up with their own sanctions that in some case harmed their own commercial interests.
"There is a certain logic to their point of view," Rice said."We don't agree with it. But there saying ‘why should we adopt strong sanctions in the council, agree to adhere to them, only to be hit upside the head with a bunch of national measures that we didn't subscribe to? How many times are we going to play this game?'"
So have U.N. sanctions against Iran run their course?
"Never say never," Rice said. "But I would say, barring something unforeseen, I think it will be a little while before there is an appetite for further action" at the United Nations.
Finally, Rice was asked if Obama wins reelection, should we expect to see her serving as his new secretary of state? She said: "I love my job and I think the only person who can answer that question is President Obama. I will do what I am asked to do or what I'm not asked to do. So, we'll see. But it has been an enormous privilege and a whole lot of fun to serve again and to serve at the United Nations, which is never dull and I feel very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing."
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Tuesday that any prospects for the normalization of relations between Washington and Tehran will end if the United States succeeds in securing U.N. sanctions against Iran.
The Iranian leader also denounced U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton for shouting "insults" at his country before the U.N. General Assembly, and accused the United States of abusing its power in a fruitless effort to punish Iran and deny its legal right to develop a nuclear energy program.
Speaking at a press conference at the Millennium Hotel, Ahmadinejad denied that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons while blaming the United States for introducing the nuclear-arms race into the modern world. "The first resolution passed against Iran in the U.N. Security Council will mean that relations between Iran and the United States will never be improved," Ahmadinejad told reporters. "Paths to that will be shut."
Ahmadinejad spent much of the past 24 hours in New York seeking to counter criticism of Iran's nuclear activity from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary Clinton, whom he called "an enemy of Iran" on PBS's Charlie Rose Show.
During an address Monday before the U.N. General Assembly, Ban scolded Iran for failing to comply with U.N. obligations to cease enrichment or uranium and to negotiate in good faith with the United States and other big powers. "The onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts and concerns about its program," Ban said in his speech.
Ahmadinejad said that Ban would never have shown him so little respect if Iran were a world power like the United States. But he said he was prepared to seek a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis. Ahmadinejad said he would hold talks in Tehran later this month with the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, two non-permanent members of the Security Council, on a proposal aimed at ensuring foreign control over Iran's uranium.
The International Atomic Energy Agency first proposed the plan -- known as the fuel swap -- in October, but after initially agreeing to accept the deal Iran abruptly refused to proceed with talks. The plan was to ship its low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for a more purified grade of uranium that can be used to fuel a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. Iran announced last month that it has succeeded in enriching its uranium to the 20 percent purity required for fueling the medical reactor.
"We have said that we are ready to engage in a swap of fuel and we feel that if the other parties show even a minimum level of sincerity we can resolve the impasse and the swap will happen," he said. The Iranian leader said even though Iran no longer needs the more highly enriched uranium, he was prepared to entertain a deal to "show our sincerity."
An agreement on a fuel swap would complicate U.S. efforts to maintain support for sanctions. Russia and China only agreed to pursue sanctions after Iran rebuffed their appeals to accept a similar deal. And U.S. and European officials voiced skepticism over Tehran's latest offer.
"Iran has a history of making confusing, contradictory, and inaccurate statements designed to convey the impression that it has adopted a flexible attitude toward the proposal," Clinton told reporters Monday. "But we have seen no indication that Iran is willing to accept the IAEA's October proposal or any variant of that proposal that would achieve the confidence-building goals that were intended."
The Iranian leader said his country has withstood more than 30 years of U.S. sanctions and that it is prepared to endure another round of U.N. sanctions. "While we don't welcome them, we don't fear them either," he said.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.