The 193-member U.N. General Assembly today "strongly" condemned the Syrian government for its "indiscriminate" shelling and bombing of civilian populations and the commission of "widespread and systematic" human rights in a conflict that has dragged on for more than 2 years and left more than 70,000 people dead.
The resolution -- which was co-sponsored by most Arab and Western governments -- was adopted by a vote of 107 to 12, with 59 abstentions. Today's action drove a wedge between the United States, which backed it, and Russia, which opposed it, at a time when the two powers are struggling to start talks between the Syrian government and the opposition on a political transition.
The General Assembly measure is not legally binding on Syria, but it represents the latest in a series of U.N. resolutions highlighting Syria's growing isolation, and ensures that Damascus will continue to face intense scrutiny at the United Nations. But the large number of abstentions, particularly among African countries, reflected broader international disquiet over the resolution's promotion of the Syrian opposition's claim to be the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
The resolution's drafting was spearheaded by Qatar, a Persian Gulf sheikdom that has been arming the Syrian opposition. Qatar has been seeking for several weeks to secure broad international support for a resolution that would elevate the Syrian National Coalition's standing at the United Nations.
The final text stopped short of recognizing the Syrian opposition, though it included a provision that notes the "wide international acknowledgement" of the Syrian coalition "as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
Damascus and its political allies, including Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, denounced the measure as one-sided, saying any decision about the legitimacy of Syria's leadership should be agreed by Syrians. The resolution, they claimed, also unfairly targeted the government for criticism while making no mention of opposition atrocities or a long string of terrorist attacks by anti-government extremists. While the resolution condemns violence by all combatants and demands that all parties halt human rights abuses, it largely ignores specific allegations of wrongdoing by the armed opposition and anti-government extremists.
"This draft resolution seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria" by undermining the government through the recognition of a "fake representative" of the Syrian people, said Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Al-Jaafari.
Najib Chadban, the Syrian National Coalition's representative to the United States and the United Nations, welcomed the vote for bringing the question of Syria back to the United Nations after months of inaction and "keeping the Syria alive." But he acknowledged "a lot of Syrians are not very happy with the inability of this organization to do something to end the killing." Chadban said the resolution calls on the secretary general to report and that he would begin to lobby other government to transfer the Syrian seat from the government to the opposition when the U.N. credential committee meets in September.
Russia's deputy ambassador, Alexander Pankin, said it was "irresponsible and counterproductive" of the resolution's sponsors to "introduce division" among U.N. members at a delicate moment in U.S. and Russian diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria. The world needs "a unified approach; we don't need destructive initiatives her at the United Nations."
But Rosemary DiCarlo, the second-highest ranking U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said resolution was perfectly consistent with Washington and Moscow's peace efforts "The Assad regime, drawing upon an arsenal of heavy weapons, aircraft, ballistic missiles, and -- potentially chemical weapons -- has killed or injured untold numbers of civilians who for many months manifested their opposition purely through peaceful protest," she said. "In our view, this resolution will send a clear message that the political solution we all seek is the best way to end the suffering of the people of Syria."
The resolution includes a list of longstanding U.N. demands that have never been honored by the Syrian government: For instance, it demands that Syrian authorities "immediately release" thousands of political prisoners; provide "full and unfettered" access to an international commission of inquiry probing rights abuses; and allow unimpeded access to humanitarian aid workers to Syrian civilians, particularly in rebel-controlled areas that can only be reached by crossing conflict lines, or by entering through Turkey. The resolution will ask a U.N. special human rights researcher to present a report in 90 days on the status of Syria's internally displaced civilians. It also asks U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to report on the resolution's implementation within 30 days, a provision that will guarantee Syria remains a topic of debate at the United Nations.
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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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Before reports of chemical weapons use surfaced earlier this year in Syria, Rolf Ekeus, a prominent Swedish arms control specialist who headed up the U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the 1990s, had been exploring ways to learn more about the chemical stockpiles in Syria and several other countries that were beyond the reach of the world's chemical weapons watchdog.
As chairman of a senior advisory group for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ekeus privately advocated that the agency appoint a special emissary that could reach out to those governments -- Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan -- that had never ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, and were therefore not subject to international scrutiny. (Israel and Myanmar have signed the convention.)
The goal was two-fold: encourage these outliers to join the treaty body, and in the meantime, gather some insights into the scope of their programs, particularly in Syria, where international concern about the fate of the country's chemical stockpile was coming into relief as the country slid deeper into civil war.
But Ekeus encountered resistance from Ahmet Uzumcu, a former Turkish diplomat who serves as executive director of the Hague-based OPCW, and who vigorously opposed the initiative. The agency's executive council, which includes Britain, China, France, Iran, Russia, and the United States, also showed little interested in the proposal. They said "absolutely not," Ekeus recalled during a phone interview from his home in Stockholm. "These countries are not a party to the treaty so we have nothing to do with them," he was told. "I wanted a permanent arrangement for dialogue with non-members of the convention," he said. "Everyone was against it."
Ekeus said his "feeble effort" to reach out to these countries "was killed" in discussions by his advisory group, squandering an opportunity to improve the organization's understanding of the Syrian chemical weapons program.
Ekeus's disclosure comes weeks after Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist and former Ekeus protégé, was appointed to lead a U.N. mission investigating conflicting claims about the uses of chemical weapons in Syria. Sellstrom -- who was recruited by Ekeus in the 1990s to hunt for chemical weapons in Iraq -- is relying on the OPCW to supply most of his team's 15 inspectors. They have little first-hand knowledge of Syria's chemical weapons program, according to Ekeus.
The Syrian government insists that rebels attacked Syrian forces with chemical weapons on March 19 outside the city of Aleppo, But Syrian opposition leaders, along with Britain, France, and Israel, have counterclaimed that Syria fired chemical weapons at its own people on at least three separate incidents. President Barack Obama said the United States believes chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that there is insufficient evidence to prove who did it.
It remains unclear why the OPCW and its board members objected to the Ekeus request. A spokesman for the chemical weapons watchdog, Michael Luhan, declined to comment on the matter. Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged countries that have not ratified the chemical weapons convention to do so.
Perhaps it is unlikely to expect that Syria, which does not publically acknowledge it possesses chemical weapons, would reveal its most guarded national security secrets to an international emissary. Ekeus said that organization's failure to proactively court the Syrians has left them in the dark.
"There is very little knowledge about what they [the Syrians] really have because the organization does not want to touch governments, which are not parties to the treaties," he said. "My proposal was that they should try to build some skills, but now it's too late. Now, Sellstrom has to start from scratch."
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Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria has informed senior U.N. diplomats that he intends to resign in the coming weeks, marking the end of another doomed U.N. diplomatic effort to end a bloody civil war that has left well over 70,000 dead in Syria, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
The decision pitches the world’s main diplomatic initiative on Syria into a state of crisis at a time when the United States and its allies are weighing a response to reports to new intelligence reports indicating that Syria may have used chemical weapons against his people. It comes as Ake Sellstrom, the U.N.'s newly appointed chemical weapons inspector, arrived in Washington for meetings with U.S. officials on the Syrian program.
The United States has sought to persuade Brahimi to put off his plans to step down until after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry concludes a May 7-8 visit to Moscow for meetings on Syria and other matters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Martin Nesirky, chief spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declined a request to confirm Brahimi’s resignation plans. But a U.N.-based diplomat from a government that has been briefed on the matter by Brahimi said he had confirmed his plans. "He said he’s going to resign," said the diplomat. But he said he would delay a formal announcement to allow the U.N. to "arrangement for a transition."
The U.N. secretary general, meanwhile, has been in discussions with the U.N.’s five major powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- about the future of U.N. diplomatic efforts after Brahimi's departure.
Brahimi, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter who has led major peace efforts from Afghanistan to Iraq, has voiced increasing despair in recent weeks over the dwindling prospects for a political transition in Syria. He has faulted the Syrian government and the armed opposition for failing to recognize the futility of a military victory and the need for a negotiated settlement.
"I am personally, profoundly sorry that my own efforts have produce so little," he told the Security Council in a closed-door meeting last month. "I apologize to the Syrian people for having, in the end, done so little for them during these past eight months and to you, in this council, for having had only sad news to report to you."
One senior Western diplomat who met with Brahimi in recent weeks said that the U.N. envoy had expressed frustration with a March 6 decision by the Arab League to adopt a resolution authorizing the Syrian National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition group, to represent Syria at the Arab League. The resolution, he explained to the Security Council last month, constituted a recognition that "no dialogue or negotiations are possible or necessary."
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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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Britain and France have informed the United Nations there is credible evidence that Syria has fired chemical weapons more than once in the past several months, according to senior U.N.-based diplomats and officials briefed on the accounts.
In letters to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the two European powers have detailed at least three instances of suspected chemical weapons used in or around the cities of Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, since last December. The claims are based on a range of corroborating evidence -- including nerve agent soil samples, witness interviews, opposition sources, and accounts by medical experts who observed victims' symptoms, according to diplomats..
If proven, the allegations would provide the first hard evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. And it would increase political pressure on the Obama administration to take steps to halt their future use.
President Barack Obama has warned that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a "game changer" for the United States. Following the Aleppo incident, Obama said the United States would "investigate thoroughly exactly what happened" and that he had instructed "teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether this red line was crossed."
But diplomats say the United States has responded cautiously. The United States, said one Security Council diplomat, has been "less activist on this" than Britain and France. "You can draw your conclusions as to why that might be."
The Europeans' presentation of their findings to the United Nations are in part aimed at countering claims by the Syrian government that armed opposition elements fired chemical weapons at Syrian forces on March 19, killing 26 people, including Syrian troops. European diplomats acknowledge that Syrian troops may have been exposed to a chemical agent during the March 19 attack, but they claim that they were hit in a "friendly fire" attack by a Syrian shell that missed an opposition target.
In making its case, Britain informed Ban in a confidential letter that it had obtained evidence confirming that Syrian forces had indeed been hit by a projectile containing the chemical agent in the town of Khan al-Asal.
The Syrian army, Britain claims, fired a chemical shell at a public facility suspected of harboring opposition elements, but that it veered off target, striking a Syrian government installation. Britain also informed the U.N. it has obtained a soil sample identifying the agent as "similar to sarin," according to a senior Western diplomat familiar with the case. But it remained unclear where the sample was located. The London Times, reported earlier this week that British intelligence had obtained a soil sample "of some kind of chemical weapon" near Damascus, though it cited a source saying. "It can't be definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent."
On March 20, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, invited the U.N. to send an "impartial" technical team to Syria confirm the opposition's use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan al-Asal near Aleppo. Russia strongly endorsed the Syrian request.
The U.N. chief quickly agreed to establish a fact-finding team and appointed a Swedish chemical weapons expert, Ake Sellstrom, to lead it. But the effort to deploy the team in Syria has bogged down over a big power dispute over the scope of the investigation.
Britain and France opposed the Syrian request for a narrow U.N. investigation into the single incident -- out of concern that the U.N. would be unable to prove who fired the chemical weapon, and that the physical evidence could be used to support the Syrian government's claim that it was a victim. Instead, they convinced Ban to expand the inquiry to include the examination of opposition claims that Syrian authorities used chemical weapons in Homs and Damascus. "There was a strong effort to foil the Syrian government narrative and urge the secretary general not to fall into that trap."
Ban agreed on March 21 to expand the investigation.
On Friday, Angela Kane, the U.N. undersecretary for disarmament affairs, informed Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, that the U.N. team would focus initially on the incident at Khan al-Asal, near Aleppo. But she added that Ban "has concluded the mission should also investigate the facts related to the reported incident on 23 December 2012 in Homs," according to an confidential communication.
The U.S. State Department carried out an internal investigation into the incident earlier this year, according to a report by Foreign Policy's blog, The Cable. Claims by opposition elements that Syria used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack in Ataybah town, near Damascus, are less persuasive than the other two cases.
Syria balked at the request to expand the investigation, and the two sides remained at an impasse. Despite repeated pleas from Ban, Damascus has not let the U.N. inspectors into the country.
Russia has vigorously backed the Syrian government's request, denouncing the European call for an expanded investigation as a ploy to delay the Aleppo inquiry.
On Monday, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, speaking during a closed door Security Council luncheon with the U.N. secretary general, scolded Ban for failing to accept the Syrian government's terms. "He gave him an earful," said one senior council diplomat who attended the luncheon.
The U.N. has written to Britain, France, and Syria, requesting further information and cooperation. Officials said the investigation team, currently in Cyprus, would likely travel to Britain to examine its soil sample, and interview Syrian refugees that may have been exposed to chemical agents.
In a press conference Wednesday, Ban told reporters that he would proceed with an investigation into the incidents outside the country. "I have been urging the Syrian government to show flexibility in accepting the proposed modalities," he said. "While awaiting consent from the Syrian government, the mission will proceed with its fact-finding activities. To this end, specific information has been requested from the governments concerned."
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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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The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly this morning to create the first international treaty regulating the global arms trade, a landmark decision that imposes new constraints on the sale of conventional arms to governments and armed groups that commit war crimes, genocide, and other mass atrocities.
The U.N. vote was hailed by arms control advocates and scores of governments, including the United States, as a major step in the international effort to enforce basic controls on the $70 billion international arms trade. But it was denounced by Iran, North Korea, and Syria, for imposing new restrictions that prevent smaller states from buying and selling arms to ensure their self-defense.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the General Assembly for approving "a strong, effective and implementable arms trade treaty that can strengthen global security while protecting the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade."
Kerry said that the treaty "applies only to international trade and reaffirms the sovereign right of any state to regulate arms within its territory. As the U.S. has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment."
Kerry said the treaty would establish "a common national standard" -- similar to that already in place in the United States -- for regulating global trade in conventional arms. It would also reduce the risk that arms sales would be used to "carry out the world's worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes."
The 193 member assembly voted 154 to 3 to adopt the treaty. There were 23 abstentions, including major arms traders like China, India, and Russia, as well as countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that have been supplying weapons to armed opposition groups in Syria, The treaty, which will open for signatures on June 3, will go into force 90 days after it is ratified by 50 states.
The vote came four days after Iran, North Korea, and Syria -- three governments who would likely be targeted by the new measures -- blocked the adoption of the treaty by consensus, arguing that it failed to bar sales to armed groups or foreign occupiers, and that it would strengthen the ability of big powers to restrict small states' ability to buy weapons.
But the vote revealed broader misgivings about the treaty by dozens of countries -- including Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan -- that the treaty would grant an unfair advantage to the world's largest arms exporters. India's chief negotiator, Sujata Mehta, explained her government's decision to abstain, saying today that the treaty "is weak on terrorism and non-state actors." She previously objected that the "weight of obligations is tilted against importing states."
The United States, which co-sponsored the treaty, said that several U.S. agencies will conduct a review of the treaty before it is presented to President Barack Obama for signature. The treaty would also require ratification by the United States Senate.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) -- which has contended the treaty would weaken Second Amendment gun rights in the United States -- has pledged to fight the treaty's ratification in the Senate.
But U.S. officials and several non-governmental organizations, including the American Bar Association, an attorneys' lobbying group, have challenged the NRA's position, saying the treaty would have no impact on Americans' gun rights. The treaty language recognizes the "legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities."
Iran, meanwhile, protested last week that the treaty had provided specific protections for U.S. gun owners, while failing to provide protections for people living under foreign occupation.
Under the treaty, states are banned from transferring arms to countries, including Iran and North Korea, that are subject to U.N. arms embargoes, or to countries believed to be preparing to use them to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.
The treaty would require governments to establish a national record-keeping system that would allow them to track the trade in conventional arms, and to ensure that weapons are not illegally diverted to terrorist organizations or other armed groups. It would also require that governments conduct a risk assessment to determine the likelihood that arms exports are being used to violate or abuse human rights, particularly against women or children.
The arms treaty would apply to several categories of conventional arms, including battle tanks, combat aircraft, warships, attack helicopters, missiles, and small arms. The treaty includes exemptions that would allow the consideration of defense cooperation agreements between governments and allow states to transfer weapons across international borders, so long as the weapons remain under that state's control.
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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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It's not exactly the Cold War.
But U.S.-Russia relations have been getting pretty chilly in the U.N. Security Council lately.
On Tuesday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, traded verbal blows over a stalled U.S. initiative to endorse a recent peace deal between Sudan and South Sudan.
The big power quarrel played out in a procedural skirmish over how the 15-nation council should be used to promote political reconciliation between the two Sudans, which have been locked in their own highly contentious squabbles over the nature of their relationship in the wake of South Sudan's independence in 2011.
Rice accused Churkin of trying to thwart the council's efforts to adopt a U.S.-drafted statement pressuring both Sudans to implement of set of obligations they have undertaken on everything from security arrangements to oil exports and trade, and condemning clashes between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces, including Khartoum’s aerial bombardment of towns in the south. Churkin fired back that Rice was "not reasonable" and her decision to divulge the contents of confidential negotiations was "rather bizarre."
The dispute reflected the deepening strains between the United States and Russia on a range of issues, including Syria, where the two powers have been stalemated, and Sudan, where Moscow has repeatedly stymied American efforts to press Khartoum. But it also highlighted the testy tenor of relations between Churkin and Rice, which some colleagues have likened to emotional exchanges between high-school kids.
For weeks, Rice had been struggling to secure agreement on a U.N. Security Council presidential statement that would recognize recent progress between the former civil war rivals in negotiations touching on everything from the demarcation of the border to control of Sudanese oil, which is mostly pumped in landlocked South Sudan, but transported, refined, and exported through Sudan.
Rice had crafted the draft in a way that could maximize pressure on Khartoum to withdraw its security forces from the disputed territory of Abyei, to provide access for U.N. humanitarian workers seeking to distribute humanitarian assistance in the conflict zones of South Kordofan and Blue Nile state. But it also deplored the presence of South Sudanese national police in Abyei, and urged both sides to refrain from hostilities.
Moscow had initially blocked the U.S. initiative on the grounds that it was too tough on Khartoum, but not tough enough on South Sudan. But on Friday of last week, Russia had reached agreement in principle with Rice to support the American measure.
The deal, however, was never concluded. Over the weekend, Sudan and South Sudan reached agreement on a deal setting the stage for the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the two countries and an oil pact that will allow for the resumption of oil exports for the first time since January 2012, when South Sudan halted production to protest what they believed were excessive transport fees charged by the Sudanese government.
Rice told reporters that she had intended to update the statement to reflect the latest agreement, but that Churkin abruptly introduced his own press statement welcoming the latest agreement and stripping out any language criticizing Khartoum's shortcomings on other fronts. Rice suggested that Russia, which has more limited interests in the Sudans than the United States, is performing the role of diplomatic spoiler in the council.
"We were close to agreement on that, and we were ready to update it to take account of recent events," Rice told reporters. "Unfortunately, perhaps in the interest of derailing such a PRST [Presidential statement], the Russian federation, which does not typically utilize the pen on South Sudan or Sudan, tabled a draft press statement, which only discussed a very narrow aspect of the substance of the larger ... statement and excluded language on the two areas, excluded mention of the cross border incidents, including aerial bombardment."
Churkin insisted that his intentions were pure, and that he was merely seeking to send a swift message of support to the Sudanese parties.
"Ambassador Rice chose to spill out to the media some confidential conversations we had today and actually did it in a rather bizarre way, from what I hear,' he told reporters. "I think the reaction of the U.S. delegation was not reasonable. And as a result of that we were not able to have any agreed reaction from the council today."
"This was not a constructive way to deal with the work in the Security Council," he added. "Trying to find all sorts of ulterior motives and come up with various outlandish accusations is not the best way to deal with your partners in the Security Council. I know it's not a good way to deal with the Russian delegation."
Some U.N. diplomats believe that Churkin is actually trying to provoke his American counterpart and that his tough line reflects an increasingly combative foreign policy approach being pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Russia is taking on an increasingly nationalistic foreign policy and Churkin's instructions reflect that," said one council diplomat.
But others fault the Americans for refusing to compromise with Russia in order to maintain pressure on Sudan and South Sudan to comply with their commitments. They say Rice's insistence on tough denunciations of Khartoum, while merited, have resulted in the council's inability to weigh in on many key aspects of the crisis since May 2012, when the council last threatened sanctions against the two sides if they failed to live up to their commitments. The United States "has been using a bazooka when they should stick with a pistol," said one U.N. insider. "Everyone knows how bad [Sudanese President Omar] Bashir is, but does it need to be put in every statement?"
A U.S. official countered that the U.S. has been even handed. "The United States is focused on resolving critical issues that risk another war between Sudan and South Sudan and have a huge human cost," said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for Rice, noting that hundreds of thousands of displaced Sudanese civilians are "enduring a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. We believe the Security Council should hold the parties accountable, as appropriate for fulfilling their obligations. When Khartoum or Juba is cuplable, we think the council needs to apply pressure, as needed."
Russia, meanwhile, has been nursing its own grievances toward the government in Juba since 2011, when the South Sudanese authorities detained a Russian helicopter crew. Moscow unsuccessfully sought U.S. support for a statement criticizing the South's action. Then, to make matters worse, last year, South Sudanese army forces shot down a U.N. helicopter piloted by a 4-man Russian crew, who were all killed in the incident. In that instance, the U.S. supported a council statement deploring the shooting, and demanding that those responsible for the shooting be held accountable.
More recently, Russia accused the United States of blocking a Security Council statement condemning a terror bombing near the Russian embassy in Damascus.
"We believe these are double standards," Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last month. "And we see in it a very dangerous tendency by our American colleagues to depart from the fundamental principle of unconditional condemnation of any terrorist act, a principle which secures the unity of the international community in the fight against terrorism," he said.
A spokeswoman for Rice, Erin Pelton, countered that assessment, saying that the United States was willing to support the Russian initiative if it included a reference to President Bashar al-Assad's government's "brutal attacks against the Syrian people. If predictably, Russia rejected the U.S. suggested language as "totally unacceptable" and withdrew its draft statement."
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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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The U.N.'s top peacekeeper, Herve Ladous, said today that Syrian authorities are shelling the town where 21 Filipino peacekeepers continued to be held by anti-government insurgents.
Ladous said he remains confident that the blue helmets will be released, but he voiced concern that the Syrian government might retaliate against local villagers after the U.N. leaves.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is in touch with the rebels, announced that 8 U.N. vehicles had entered the town, indicating a pull out may be imminent. But the rebels have previously insisted that Syrian forces withdraw from the town before the peacekeepers are released.
The disclosure comes one day after an armed group, calling itself the Martyrs of Yarmouk, had pledged to release the 21 peacekeepers. Ladsous's remarks suggested that the effort to extract them had grown increasingly more complicated.
During a briefing to the U.N. Security Council on the crisis, Ladsous said that U.N. officials in Syria had been seeking to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between Syrian armed forces and the insurgents to allow the peacekeepers to be released, a council diplomat told Turtle Bay. The U.N. had expected to secure the blue helmets release this morning, but they were still being held by the time he briefed the Security Council.
"We are hopeful that their release can be accomplished very quickly and we are keeping our fingers crossed," Ladsous told reporters after briefing the 15-nation body. "The situation is as follows: our peacekeepers are detained in the village of al Jamlah. Apparently they are safe; they have been spread into five or four locations within the villages, in basements of various houses. That part of the village is subject to intense shelling by the Syrian armed forces."
The episode highlighted the risk of the Syrian civil war spreading beyond the theater of conflict inside the country. The captured U.N. peacekeepers are serving as part of a U.N. Disengagement and Observation Force, which is monitoring a 1974 ceasefire between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights. The fighting erupted in the town of al Jamlah, less than a mile from the Golan, and it has drawn the U.N. peacekeeping mission into the fray.
It was the second time in a week that U.N. blue helmets had been caught in the middle of fighting between the army and the insurgents around the town of al Jamlah, according to U.N. sources. Last weekend, three unarmed U.N. observers at the nearby U.N. Observation Post 58 got trapped between the warring combatants, forcing them to ultimately evacuate the post. Ladsous said the U.N. had since decided to evacuate another U.N. post because it was exposed to fire.
Ladsous voiced concern about the fate of the al Jamlah's villagers in the event that the U.N. blue helmets leave. "We all hope ... that there would not be retaliatory action by the Syrian armed forces over the village and its civilian population after our people have left."
Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari denied Ladsous's account of events, telling reporters outside the U.N. Security Council that "the Syrian government is not shelling the village. "We know for sure what we are doing and we know where the peacekeepers are." Jaafari said Syria is "sacrificing the lives of our soldiers in order to bring these peacekeepers [to safety]. We are paying a huge price for their safety."
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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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U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has hit an impasse in his efforts to promote a Syrian political transition that would ultimately lead to President Bashar al-Assad yielding power to a caretaker national unity government. But it hasn't stopped him from trying. In a closed door session of the Security Council this week, Brahimi introduced a six point plan to try to break the political impasse. He expressed hope that his plan could inform a Security Council peace initiative on Syria. "I think that public opinion the world over is now looking up to the Security Council to take a determined, strong lead," he told the council in a confidential briefing. A copy of Brahimi's remarks was posted this evening by Alhurra's U.N. reporter, Nabil Abi Saab. Here's Brahimi's six point plan:
1. Syria's independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity must be preserved.
2. A recognition that ultimate objective is for Syrians to have a full say in the way they are governed.
3. The formation of a transition government with "full executive powers." Brahimi says he believes that means President Bashar al Assad "would have no role in the transition."
4. Both sides would need to be represented by broad group of opposition leaders and strong military-civilian delegation from the Syrian government.
5. Negotiations should occur outside of Syria, and conform with a timetable setting out a speedy path towards elections, constitutional reform, and a referendum. He raised the prospect of moving from a presidential system of government to a parliamentarian system.
6. He urged the U.N. Security Council to unequivocally express support for the right of each citizen in Syria "to enjoy full equality before the law irrespective of gender, religion, language or ethnicity."
After presenting his plan to the Security Council on Tuesday, Brahimi met with the five permanent members of the council at a dinner hosted by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, at her official residence at the Waldorf Astoria. Diplomats said that the council's big powers expressed support for Brahimi's efforts but were unable to endorse his plan. Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. ambassador, made it clear that any political settlement would have to be negotiated with President Assad, not imposed by the Security Council. There are no immediate plans for the council's key powers to resume discussions on Brahimi's plan.
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With the Syrian uprising and civil war approaching its second year, Turtle Bay decided to have a look at some of the underlying U.N. numbers -- some familiar and some more obscure -- that tell the toll of the country's suffering.
As United States and other wealthy governments converged on Kuwait for an international donor conference on Syria, Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, said the reality of the situation is potentially worse than we know, especially in the face of a bitterly cold winter. U.N. officials say it's hard to quantify the suffering, particularly given the Syrian government's refusal to let U.N. relief workers deliver assistance to rebel-controlled areas from neighboring Turkey. But Amos and other U.N. officials have detailed some of the lesser-known facts and figures to give a sense of the impact the crisis is having on ordinary Syrians, and the costs of not responding.
The scale of the suffering has generated calls from the United Nations for a massive humanitarian response, including appeals for $519 million in assistance for distressed Syrians inside their own country, and another $1 billion for Syrian refugees that have fled the country's violence.
In recent days, the U.N. and international advocacy groups cited figures suggesting that the international community has been unwilling to pay the price for responding to the need. A coalition of non-governmental organizations singled out six countries -- Brazil, Japan, China, South Korea, Russia, and Mexico -- that together account for a quarter of the world's GDP, but which have provided little or no funding. "Donors have not stepped up to their responsibilities in this past period," said John Ging, the U.N. humanitarian relief agencies director of operations.
But U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Kuwait today that the U.N. surpassed its target with more than $1.5 billion in pledges, easily meeting its funding appeals. The key donors include:
But government pledges at donor conferences don't always result in money spent.
U.N. officials said that the Kuwait conference was a promising start. "Money has been pledged, but that is just the start," Amos said after the conference. "We now have to do all we can to turn that into action on the ground -- but the environment in which we work is extremely challenging."
Indeed, it is. On Tuesday, the French aid agency, Medecins Sans Frontiers, protested that international assistance was primarily being delivered to civilians in government-controlled areas.
Ging challenged that assessment, saying that at least 48 percent of international assistance was being delivered by the Syrian Red Crescent and a handful of other international relief organizations to opposition areas.
But he acknowledged that the U.N. has gained little access to rebel-controlled territory in the north, primarily as a result of the Syrian government's refusal to permit them access through the Turkish border. Ging said the U.N. was relying on the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to verify whether money channeled through the Syrian Red Crescent is going to those in need, regardless of political affiliation.
But he said the U.N. is also not naïve about the risks of assistance being diverted to pro-government communities and that the organization is working to expand the presence of international relief agencies in Syria.
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U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi issued an impassioned appeal to U.N. Security Council members, particularly the United States and Russia, to put aside their differences and to take firmer action to help stop the bleeding in Syria.
The country, he warned, is on the verge of disintegrating and the Syrian combatants were undercutting prospects for any hope of a diplomatic settlement.
"I'm sorry if I sound like an old broken record," Brahimi told the council, according to notes of his briefing obtained by Turtle Bay. "The country is breaking up before everyone's eyes."
Brahimi told the council that the effort to persuade the warring factions to enter political talks had run aground, with the Syrian government and the armed opposition unwilling to talk to one another. Key regional powers, meanwhile, had picked sides in the conflict, transforming Syria into a "playground for competing forces."
The veteran U.N. trouble-shooter said the best hope for reversing the situation's worsening trend lies with the Security Council, which has remained paralyzed by a big power split between Russia and China on one side, who oppose punishing Bashar al-Assad's government for its brutality, and Western and Arab powers on the other, who favor sanctioning Syria.
"The Security Council simply cannot continue to say we are in disagreement, therefore let us wait for better times," Brahimi told reporters after the meeting, adding that he would continue to discuss Syria at a dinner tonight with the council's five major powers. "I think they have to grapple with this problem now."
Behind closed doors, Brahimi said the Syrian regime "is as repressive as ever, if not more," but that the armed opposition was also believed to have committed "equally atrocious crimes." He said international investigations are needed to get to the bottom of some of the country's worst human rights calamities, including this week's massacre of at least 65 people in Aleppo.
Brahimi said that he would continue to press the council's permanent members, including the United States and Russia, at a private dinner tonight to reach agreement on a common approach to Syria.
He said he would continue to press for his plan for the establishment of a transitional government with "full executive powers."
Brahimi told reporters that it was time to "lift the ambiguity" about the meaning of that phrase, though he did not say publicly exactly what that would mean for Assad. Behind closed doors, however, he told council diplomats that "it clearly means that Assad should have no role in the transition.... Assad's legitimacy has been irreparably damaged."
After the meeting, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that Washington "expressed strong support" for Brahimi's peace efforts and that it will continue to engage in talks with Brahimi and other key powers. But, she said, "I don't have any promises of any big breakthroughs."
Brahimi, meanwhile, confronted persistent rumors, published in the Arab press, that he was planning to resign from his job.
"I'm not a quitter, and the United Nations has no choice but to remain engaged with this problem" he told reporters. "The moment I feel that I am totally useless I will not stay one minute more."
"I didn't want this job," he admitted, suggesting that perhaps he taken it on "stupidly." "I felt a sense of duty," said Brahimi.
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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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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded a gloomy note on the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria, telling reporters today at Turtle Bay that U.N.-backed efforts to curtail the violence were proving elusive.
Ban's grim assessment comes as U.N.-Arab League Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi is in New York to press the U.N. Security Council to ratchet up political pressure on the warring parties to put down their weapons. But there are few signs that the big power divisions that have paralyzed the U.N. Security Council over the past two years have been overcome.
"Brahimi continues his diplomatic efforts. We met yesterday, and reviewed the latest state of play," Ban said. "Our shared assessment is that we are still a long way from getting the Syrians together."
"The situation is very dire, very difficult," he added. "We do not see much prospect of a resolution at this time."
It's no wonder.
In a Jan. 6 address to the Syrian people, President Bashar al-Assad effectively rejected the former Algerian diplomat's plan for a political transition.
Brahimi's Plan B -- a diplomatic effort to get United States and Russian agreement on a plan that would pressure the Syrian leader to step aside -- has gone nowhere. Senior U.N.-based diplomats say that those talks have achieved only the most incremental progress, and that while some Russian diplomats appear open to a deal, their political masters in Moscow have balked at any pact that would undercut Assad.
Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it clear that his government will accept no plan for a transitional government in Syria that requires Assad step down. Last week, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, drove home that point at a Security Council luncheon hosted by Ban.
The Russian stance has dealt a blow to Brahimi's efforts to increase pressure on Assad to make way for a transitional government which would preserve a role for Syria's security institutions, but require him to step aside.
U.N. officials say that Brahimi recognizes that a Russian and American pact may not be enough to get the Syrian government and the rebels to stop fighting right away.
But the point of Brahimi's diplomatic strategy, said one U.N. official, is to "start changing the dynamics at play" by putting in place a diplomatic process that can eventually persuade the warring parties and their allies that there is a peaceful alternative to civil war.
The U.N. hopes, according to the U.N. official, that if the United States and Russia do converge on an agreed strategy, the U.N. Security Council will rally behind them, opening the door to the possibility of a legally binding Security Council resolution that would seek to compel the warring factions to stop fighting through the imposition of an arms embargo and other coercive measures.
"A U.S.-Russian agreement would not be a magic bullet. But it could very well lead to some possibilities that are currently unavailable because of the utter lack of unity in the international community," said the official. The armed opposition, meanwhile, "might have more faith in a political approach" if it is backed by a Security Council resolution "that makes Bashar's inevitable departure seem more real." The Syrian rebels have made clear that they will not accept any political transition that keeps Assad in place.
But some senior U.N.-based diplomats fear that Brahimi has run out of workable options. "It was a mistake of Brahimi to think we are in the Cold War and the Americans and the Russians can decide," said one senior U.N.-based diplomat . "Even if they agree I don't see how and why the fighters who have been fighting for 18 months or two years will accept the diktat of the United States and Russia."
Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University's Center on Global Cooperation, said "Brahimi's calculation is that the regional players [who are arming the opposition] are not likely to shift their positions unless they see some sort of signal from the United States and Russia. As long as Russia and the United States are far apart there is no incentive for anyone in the region to rethink their stances. So that's the case for pushing ahead with the Russian track."
Gowan sees little reason to believe Moscow will "do anything to initiate the fall of Assad," saying that Russia is "just stringing everyone along as it has been stringing everyone along for a year." But he said he believes that Brahimi is keen to keep the talks going to pave the way for cooperation between Moscow and Washington in the event that Assad does fall. "This is creating some sort of basis for Russia and the United States to agree on a common response when Assad goes," he said.
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Syria's suffering now has an official number: 59,648.
That's the death toll that Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, assigned to the Syrian government's bloody political crackdown and the resulting civil war, over a period ranging from March 15, 2011, to November 30, 2012.
The precise number is, of course, an educated guess, but that figure has almost certainly passed the 60,000 mark in the new year, Pillay said.
The real number, according to Pillay, is probably even higher than that, given the fact that much of the Syrian carnage has played out in dark places, beyond the prying eyes of witnesses. "The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking," she said Wednesday.
In fact, the number -- which is significantly higher than previous, informal U.N. estimates of about 40,000 dead -- has caught many top U.N. officials by surprise.
So, how then, did the U.N. human rights office, which has virtually no presence on the ground in Syria, come up with that figure?
They commissioned a team of statistical wizards at Benetech, a West Coast non-profit that runs a human rights program that crunches data to unlock hidden patterns of mass killing around the world.
The team was headed by the group's lead statistician, Megan Price, and included Patrick Ball -- chief scientist and vice president of the firm's human rights data analysis group -- whose computer models have been used to identify patterns of human rights violations from Guatemala to South Africa, and whose numbers aided in the prosecution of the alleged Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. (Read the excellent profile of Ball by Tina Rosenberg here.)
Applying a data mining technique called an alternating decision tree, Price, Ball and Jeff Klinger compiled basic fatality figures -- such as victims' ages, time and place of death -- from seven separate data sets, including those maintained by the Syrian government and opposition groups, including the oft-cited Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The names and vital details of 147,349 reported killings were then run through a computer program that is designed to detect duplicate references to individuals. The model was refined by a native Syrian Arab speaker who went through a sample of about 8,200 pairs of killings.
The figure was then whittled down to 59,648 "unique" deaths, though Benetech notes that it "was not able to differentiate clearly between combatants and non-combatants." The seven data sets used ranged from the Syrian government's record of 2,539 dead to more than 38,120 counted by the Violations Documentation Center, an opposition group. The larger number included in Pillay's estimate reflected the fact that the analysis was drawn from seven separate data sets.
Price, the lead statistician, said that counting the dead in a war zone is a “really hard problem,” particularly given the fact that there are many other “things that feel more pressing than figuring out mortality figures in an active conflict.”
Price objected to the characterization of her group’s numbers as estimates, saying she and her colleagues simply enumerated “documented, verifiable deaths.”
“We in fact don’t know how many people have been killed in Syria,” she told Turtle Bay. “What we know is how many deaths have been documented by these seven groups.”
Price said she recognizes that the fog of war leaves open the possibility of errors creeping into her team’s count; for instance, an automobile accident victim counted as conflict related death. Or a single victims name is spelled differently on different data sets, leading to a single death counted as two.
But she said her team sought to anticipate some of these mistakes through a variety of computer procedures with names like “fuzzy matching” and “rejection rules.” An example of fuzzy matching could involve the identification of variations on a single name –like Bob, Bobby, Rob and Robert – that would be read by the computer as the same name. Rejections rules are designed to prevent the computer from eliminating a potential fatality because they share a similar attribute—say a name – with another victim, but are not likely the same person. “Rejections rules are hard boundaries you are going to define to say those records cannot match,” Price said. “A common rejection rule is gender: any two records that have different genders are not likely the same individual.”
The decision by U.N. officials to assign a death toll for a given conflict can be highly controversial, and invariably provokes challenges by governments and sometimes other U.N. officials. In 2009, Pillay encountered intense pushback from top U.N. officials before publishing an account of the number of civilians who were slaughtered during the final months of Sri Lanka's civil war.
This time around, Pillay's deputy, Ivan Simonovic, faced little opposition when he informed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other top U.N. officials before Christmas that Pillay's figure was going to be high-- though he didn't cite a number. One U.N. official said the figure turned out to be significantly higher than most of Ban's aides had anticipated.
Rupert Colville, Pillay's spokesman, told Turtle Bay that while this is the first time that the high commissioner has commissioned Benetech to estimate a conflict death toll, she has previously offered guesstimates of death tolls in Egypt and Tunisia.
Pillay released a Syrian death toll estimate in 2011, but resisted subsequent pressure to release an update because of uncertainty about the numbers. She was persuaded by Benetech's analysis, according to Colville.
Colville acknowledged that there "is a bit of a risk" in basing the high commissioner's estimate on raw data collected by independent groups. "It's not a perfect number," he said. "But given the level of research that went into this, it's far better than what we had before."
Benetech's analysis showed a steady increase in the rate of killing -- from 1,000 per month in the summer of 2011 to more than 5,000 per month since July 2012. The vast majority of those killed were male -- over 76 percent. Just 7.5 percent were female. (The gender was unclear for 16.4 percent of cases.)
As for the geography of this grim toll, the largest numbers of killings were in Homs (12,560), rural Damascus (10,862), and Idlib (7,686), followed by Aleppo (6,188), Daraa (6,034) and Hama (5,080).
"While many details remain unclear, there can be no justification for the massive scale of the killing highlighted by this analysis," Pillay said. "The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, shames us all."
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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 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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In contrast to his high-profile predecessor, Kofi Annan, the former Algerian diplomat and U.N. diplomatic troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi has sought to fly below the radar, resisting pressure to put down a peace plan that bears his own name.
But the next few days will provide the first real test of Brahimi's diplomatic skills, and whether several weeks of low key diplomacy, including a Damascus meeting earlier this month with President Bashar al-Assad, has borne fruit.
Assad has pledged to observe Brahimi's call for a cease-fire beginning Friday, the first day of Eid el-Adha, the Muslim Day of Sacrifice. In Damascus, Syrian state television broadcast a statement from the Syrian Armed Forces saying that military operations would cease in Syria from October 26 to October 29, but that "Syrian Armed Forces will, however, reserve the right to reply to terrorists attacks, attempts of armed groups to reinforce or re-supply, or attempts to infiltrate from neighboring countries
The Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups have also assured Brahimi that they would reciprocate if the Syrian military stops shelling them.
Still, there was little confidence in Washington and New York that Brahimi's cease-fire initiative would stem the bloodshed, which has left more than 30,000 dead, driven more than 350,000 Syrian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, and placed more than 3 million people in need of outside assistance.
"Regime atrocities -- aerial bombardments, cluster bombs, shelling -- are mounting in Syria and threatening the security of the entire region," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted yesterday. "Many are duly skeptical about the prospects for even a temporary cease-fire, given Assad's record of broken promises."
In a sense, Brahimi's challenge is to reverse the conventional narrative on Syria: that the country's descent into a sectarian civil war is irreversible and that the only hope is to pick a favorite and hope they prevail.
In recent weeks, Brahimi has urged the rebels' backers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to withhold support for a military overthrow of Assad's regime, arguing that only an orderly political transition will save the region from a bloody descent into chaos.
Next week, Brahimi will travel to Moscow -- Syria's chief military and political ally -- and then on to Beijing to urge the pro-Syrian powers to convince Assad that he cannot survive in power and must accept a real political transition.
"The military approach pursued by both sides will bring no winner," Brahimi warned the 15-nation Security Council in a closed-door briefing on Wednesday, according to a council member who attended the meeting. "I need your unambiguous and unanimous support, or it worsens and spreads. Any plan that doesn't enjoy UNSC support is a prescription for failure."
Brahimi's cease-fire proposal is a small first step in broader plan for a political transition that is beginning to gradually take shape. Earlier this week, the U.N.'s peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous announced that the U.N. is beginning contingency plans for a peacekeeping mission in Syria that could be deployed in the event that warring parties agree on a cease-fire -- backed by a political transitional plan. Those plans, which would require approval by the Syrian combatants and the Security Council, would envision of a force of some 3,000 blue helmets.
"While staying below the radar, Brahimi has started to sketch out a longer-term peace plan, which may involve sending in a new UN monitoring force to oversee a fuller ceasefire," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the Center on International Cooperation. "But that will only work if the Syrian army and the rebels believe that the other side will genuinely halt hostilities. This 'practice cease-fire' is basically an initial test of both sides' credibility.... The cease-fire proposal is a fairly low-risk gambit by Brahimi. If it succeeds, he gains extra credibility as mediator. If it fails, it probably won't do major damage to his position."
Brahimi has sought to dampen expectations, describing the cease-fire as a "modest" initiative aimed at easing the delivery of humanitarian assistance and hopefully leading to a more sustained cease fire that could pave the way for a political transition.
"He was not overly confident," said one U.N. diplomat. "He said ‘I can't be certain this pause will be effective: there is a lot of distrust between the parties. The hope is that the cease-fire can create some breathing space and pressure that could lead you down the road towards a more lasting cease-fire linked to a political process.'"
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The U.N. Security Council tonight issued a statement that "condemned in the strongest terms" Syria's shelling of the Turkish town of Akcakale -- an attack that killed five civilians, all of them women and children -- and voiced their "sincerest condolences" to the Turkish government and the families of the victims.
The statement, which was backed by Russia and China, marked the first time that the U.N. Security Council has weighed in on the situation in Syria since July 19, when Moscow and Beijing vetoed a resolution threatening sanctions against Damascus.
The 15-nation council reached agreement on the text after more than a day of intensive talks that pitted Russia against the United States and other Western powers.
Moscow, which has served as Damascus's closest ally on the council, sought to strip out any language that directly accused the Syrian government of responsibility for the mortar strike, which triggered a series of retaliatory artillery strikes against Syrian targets.
Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin also sought to remove any characterization of the Syrian action that might serve as a trigger for deeper Security Council involvement in a crisis. Churkin also sought to include a provision calling on both Syria and Turkey to show restraint.
The final statement was softened somewhat to accommodate some of Russia's concerns. For instance, it does not directly conclude that Syria's action constituted a threat to internationalpeace and stability.
Instead, it merely noted that the mortar attack "highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on its neighbors and on regional peace and stability." The statement demands that "such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated," but while it issues a call for restraint it doesn't specify who needs to exercise restraint.
Churkin, meanwhile, said he would be back in the council tomorrow to press for a condemnation of a deadly bomb attack in Syria's second city, Aleppo, which targeted a Syrian officers club and left more than 30 people dead.
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The Syrian government sought to avert an escalating military confrontation with Turkey today, offering its condolences to Turkey and the families affected by the Wednesday mortar attack, which killed a woman and four children, according to a Syrian letter to the U.N. Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But Damascus stopped short of apologizing for the cross border strike against Turkey, a NATO member, and it offered no condolences to the Turkish government, reflecting the ongoing tensions between the two states.
The Syrian gesture came as NATO members convened in Brussels to consider a response to the cross border attack on a member of the organization, and Ban voiced growing concern over the risk that the confrontation might have on regional peace.
Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari, informed the U.N. in the letter that Syrian authorities "are seriously investigating" the circumstances leading up to the Wednesday mortar strike in the town of Akcakale. Regarding Turkey's military response, Jaafari noted that two Syrian Army officers were injured in a succession of artillery attacks on installations just south of the Syrian village of Tal Abiad. The Turkish barrage began at 7 p.m., stopped around midnight, and then resumed until 7 a.m. this morning. Syria did not respond to the Turkish fire.
Relations between Syria and Turkey, once close allies, have deteriorated since President Bashar al-Assad launched a violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in March 2011. The Turkish government has permitted anti-government insurgents to move weapons, cash, and other supplies across the Turkish border to rebel fighters seeking the overthrow of the Syrian regime.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League special representative on Syria has been working with the two sides to ease tensions. The U.N. chief, meanwhile, expressed "alarm" over the standoff, saying, through his spokesman, that "the risks of regional conflict and the threat to international peace and security are also increasing."
Brahimi said the two governments should handle the border incidents "wisely, rationally and responsibly" and asked the Turkish government to cooperate with the Syrian authorities to impose greater controls over the border between the two countries.
Jaafari responded, saying that Syria conducts its relations with its neighbors with "rules of good neighborliness and respect for national sovereignties of states" but it expects its neighbors to "respect the national sovereignty of Syria, and to cooperate in border control and prevention of the infiltration of insurgents and terrorists."
The Syrian missive was transmitted to the council as it is weighing its response to the Syrian mortar attack. Last night, Azerbaijan introduced a statement condemning the Syrian strike as a threat to international peace and security and demanding that such acts stop immediately. But Russia, which has claimed that Syrian authorities have assured Moscow that the cross-border attack was an accident, blocked the statement's approval, and offered a competing statement that would also condemn the Syria strike but which called on both sides to "exercise restraint and avoid military clashes that could lead to further escalations."
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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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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.