The U.N. Security Council struggled this evening to prevent the collapse of a beleaguered mission that has helped maintain peace between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights for nearly 40 years.
The fate of the mission -- the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) -- was placed in jeopardy this week when the Austrian government announced plans to withdraw the largest national contingent, some 380 Austrian peacekeepers, from the mission, which currently has 913 troops. The Austrian announcement followed a surge of fighting between Syrian regime forces and rebels in the U.N.-monitored demilitarized zone.
"Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said Thursday in a joint statement. It continued, noting that "further delay (in withdrawing the troops) is no longer justifiable."
The U.N. Security Council met in an emergency session tonight to review the options for preserving the mission. Britain's U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, who is serving as the Security Council president for June, told reporters after the meeting that the United Nations has appealed to Austria to delay their pullout in order to give it the chance to find replacements.
Lyall Grant said the U.N. peacekeeping department has been in urgent discussions with countries that still have troops in the mission -- including India, which has nearly 200 blue helmets and the Philippines, which has roughly 350 -- to reinforce their contingents. It has also reached out to new countries, including Fiji, which was already planning to send a relatively small contingent of blue helmets, to send more.
Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that his government is willing to replace the Austrian contingent with a battalion of at least 300 blue helmets. But he noted that any decision would require agreement by the Israeli and Syrian governments, because their 1974 truce bars any of the five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- from participating in the mission. He also said he asked the U.N. legal department to determine whether a new Security Council resolution may be required.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the Syrian crisis today in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it was unclear whether Putin asked the Israeli leader to approve a Russian peacekeeping role in the Golan.
Council diplomats were puzzled by the Russian offer, noting that Moscow is one of Damascus's main military suppliers, and that Russian blue helmets would likely be targeted by Syrian rebels. They said they considered it unlikely that Israel or the Security Council's western powers would approve a Russian role in the Golan Heights. The U.N., meanwhile, made clear that Russia could not participate under existing conditions.
"We appreciate the consideration that the Russian Federation has given to provide troops to the Golan," Martin Nesirky, the U.N.'s chief spokesman told reporters. "However, the Disengagement Agreement and its protocol, which is between Syria and Israel, do not allow for the participation of permanent members of the Security Council in UNDOF."
The U.N. mission first deployed U.N. blue helmets to the Golan in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War. The lightly armed observers were initially mandated to help maintain a cease fire, monitor the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian troops, and finally to oversee an "area of separation" between the rival powers pending a full-fledged peace agreements. The two combatants never made peace, however, the demilitarized zone has remained relatively calm for the past four decades.
But the area has emerged in recent months as a key battlefield between the Syria rebels, who initially sought a safe haven in the area, and the Syrian government, which has moved heavy weapons into the area of separation -- a violation of the terms of the 1974 cease-fire agreement -- to drive the rebels out. U.N. peacekeepers have been the target of an increasing number of attacks, hijackings, and abductions that have heightened concern among governments about the mission's viability. Fighting along the Golan Heights has already prompted other U.N. peacekeeping contingents -- from Croatia and Japan -- to leave the region.
Lyall Grant said the U.N. Security Council is "united in expressing their concern" about the ongoing fighting in the Golan and the proposal to withdraw troops." Everyone agreed that UNDOF should continue in its mission, even if temporarily reduced in its ability to fulfill the current mandate," he said.
The U.N. peacekeeping department, he said, is "trying to encourage the Austrians to slow down their departure from the theater and dissuade any other current troop contributors from withdrawing troops. I think we are in a serious situation and we need to work together to try to protect the mission from collapse."
Lyall Grant said that the U.N. mandate in the Golan might not be sustainable over the long term. He said the U.N. peacekeeping department would present the Security Council with a set of options before June 26, when the mission's mandate expires, on whether the mission's mandate needs to be "strengthened, ended, or changed in the light of current circumstances."
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Speaking at the Russian mission to the United Nations, Churkin said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov will make the case for Tehran's participation in a meeting Wednesday in Geneva with top U.S. officials, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. The United States has opposed Tehran's presence in talks on an international political settlement in Syria, arguing that Iran has been arming the Syrian government and has no interest in a political transition.
The dispute over Iran's participation in political talks has held up agreement on a U.S. and Russian proposal to bring Syrian government and opposition leaders together at an international conference to bring an end to the civil war. The U.S. and Russian delegation are aiming to overcome their differences in tomorrow's talks, and will hopefully schedule a date for the peace conference, which was supposed to be set for this month.
"There are two immediate issues which need to be clarified: Who is going to represent the opposition? And then who is going to be invited" from outside the country," Churkin said. "We are arguing that Iran should be invited; some are saying Iran should not be invited."
Churkin said that Russia also favors the attendance of other key regional powers, including Egypt, which did not appear at a previous diplomatic summit on Syria hosted by former U.N.-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan, and Saudi Arabia, which has supplied arms to the opposition. "We are in favor of having all of those who can have influence."
For two years, the United States and Russia have been sharply divided over the approach to containing the Syrian crisis, with Washington calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power, and Moscow, which insists that Syria's leader have a say in the country's political future. Russia has cast its veto three times to block the Security Council from adopting a resolution compelling Assad to accept a political transition that would lead to his demise.
"If you go back and look at this whole saga of Syria and our vetoes in the Security Council, I think the problem was that really we felt that the United States and those who actively supported the United States were out to effect forcible regime change," Churkin said. "And we were, as a matter of principle and as a matter of geopolitics, if you will. Against that because we felt that would bring about a chain of events...which was going to be extremely dangerous to Syria and for the region."
Despite U.S. and Russian differences, Churkin said that the former Cold War adversaries have been working productively over Syria. While accusing Britain and France of seeking to continue to foment regime change, Churkin said the United States has been "more realistic in seeing the situation in Syria as less simplistic than some West European countries."
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russian diplomatic talks on Syria are unfolding amid fresh reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. A U.N. human rights panel issued a report indicating there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that forces loyal to Assad has used limited amounts of chemical weapons on at least four occasions in March and April. Separately, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that a French lab confirmed the "presence of sarin in the samples in our possession" and that it "now is certain that sarin gas was used in Syria multiple times and in a localized way."
Britain's U.N. envoy Mark Lyall-Grant said that his government believe there is evidence that small amounts of sarin have been used in Syria.
"The evidence that we have suggest that there is a use of a number of different variants of chemical agents, a combination of agents, in some cases sometimes including sarin, sometimes not," he told reporters a press conference at U.N. headquarters. "It is relatively small quantities but notheless repeated use."
"Our view is that there has been credible evidence that in small quantities chemical weapons have been used by the regime in Syria," he added. "We have no evidence that the opposition either possesses or has used chemical weapons."
In advance of the Geneva talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that Moscow may be reconsidering its plans to deliver advanced S-300 advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. "It is a very serious weapon," Putin said. "We do not want to upset the balance of power in the region."
Despite the increased U.S. and Russian cooperation on Syria, Moscow continues to block any action on Syria in the U.N. Security Council. Last month, Russia rejected a request by Jordan to send a Security Council delegation to Jordan to witness the refugee plight and to help Jordan cope with the overwhelming financial costs of tending to their needs.
Churkin said that "one of the problems" with approving the trip was that it would be unfair to the Palestinians, who have been seeking a Security Council visit for more than three years. But he said the "main problem" is that "we didn't see that the Security Council should get involved in the refugee situations at this point." Russia was also concerned that some non-permanent members of the council made it clear that their interest in having that mission of the Security Council to Jordan was to build a bridge towards humanitarian corridors, no-fly zone...essentially dragging Jordan into the Syrian. If you want to deal with the actual refugee situation then let's deal with the refugee situation. We can send experts. Or we can have a conference on refugees."
Churkin also said that he had rejected a proposal by Britain over the weekend to adopt a U.N. Security Council press statement condemning Syria for its brutal siege of the town of Qusayr. The Russian envoy complained that the statement was "not balanced."
Churkin also touched on the history of prickly relations with his American counterpart, Susan Rice. Despite their differences, Churkin said that they "do have a very good personal and working relationship. " But he said that "sometimes we have clashed, and sometimes we have clashed in a nasty way. Do I do it on purpose? Of course not."
But he sounded as though he may relish the jousts. Once, he recalled, at a Security Council retreat he quipped: "I regard my day as wasted if I don't pick a fight with Ambassador Rice. But that was a joke."
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A British-led effort to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria succeeded by default on Monday, as a political split between European leaders over the fate of the ban killed off any hopes of extending the embargo's life. The British government, backed by France, is hoping that the prospect of new arms flows to the Syrian rebels could strengthen the opposition's negotiating hand on the eve of a major peace conference in Geneva planned for later this month.
But the decision to end the embargo in two months hasn't resulted in any immediate calls or plans for arming the opposition. Instead, Russia cited the decision today in defending its own move to deliver S-300 air defense missiles, claiming it would deter foreign intervention. "We consider that such steps will restrain some hotheads from the possibility of giving this conflict, or from considering a scenario that would give this conflict, an international character with the participation of external forces," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, according to Interfax news agency.
Jean Marie Guéhenno, a former French official and under secretary-general for peacekeeping who served as a top advisor to former U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan, said that the decision to block the maintenance of the European arms embargo has merely provided political cover to Russia and other regime supporters to continue its arms sales. Meanwhile, there's little fresh hope that Western powers will enter the conflict on behalf of the rebels.
"I think it backfired and exposed the weakness of the West, in general," Guéhenno told Turtle Bay. "This issue of arming or not arming is more a bluff than anything else. It's more about doing something to show you're doing something than actually doing something. It will be seen by the Russians, who are not fools, as a sign of weakness rather than strength."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague hailed the decision to ease the barrier to arms shipments to the rebels, however. "We have brought an end to the EU arms embargo on the opposition," he said. "This decision gives us the flexibility in future to respond to a worsening situation or the refusal of the regime to negotiate."
But the decision placed new strains on the European alliance. Austria, the Czech Republic, and Sweden vehemently opposed lifting the arms embargo, fearing it would undermine a U.S. and Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at starting political talks between Damascus and the rebels. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger warned that they likely would pull 300 Austrian peacekeepers out of the Golan Heights, which separates Syrian and Israel forces, if Britain decides to arm the rebels, according to the Guardian.
The move to lift the embargo comes at a time when military support for President Bashar Al-Assad is on the rise, not only from Moscow but from Tehran and Lebanese Shiite militants. On Saturday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his fighters were committed to wage Assad's battle to the end. "We will continue to the end of the road," he said, according to Reuters."We accept this responsibility and will accept all sacrifices and expected consequences of this position," he said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. "We will be the ones who bring victory."
In comparison, warnings from the West of possible military action in the future seem to be doing little to deter Assad's backers. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the U.S. decision to co-sponsor, along with Russia, a diplomatic peace conference on Syria later this month, has lessened calls for military action to halt the killing. "Basically, this process kills the whole discussion on intervention, chemical weapons, and R2P [the Responsibility to Protect doctrine]," Hokayem told Turtle Bay.
"Yesterday's focus on the arms embargo issue at the European Foreign Minister's meeting was something of a red herring," Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey wrote in a blog post at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The West is, quite simply, ill-equipped to win a proxy arming race if its support for rebels prompts Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia to increase their military backing of the regime. And that is exactly what has happened. Russia's announcement today that it will supply anti-aircraft missiles was entirely predictable."
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Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the March 9 crash of a U.N.-contracted Russian Mi-8 helicopter during a storm in Eastern Congo that killed all four crew members and prompted internal calls from U.N. aviation officials for new safety features on aircraft.
In the days following the crash of the Russian helicopter, two mid-level U.N. aviation officials advocated the need for UTair (the chopper's owner) and other contractors to immediately install a safety device known as an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS), a digital mapping system that allows pilots flying into a storm to detect and evade large obstacles, like mountains and buildings.
But Ameerah Haq, the undersecretary general in the U.N.'s Department of Field Support, overruled the U.N.'s aviation experts, saying that it needed to conduct "a review of technical and contractual arrangements" before deciding whether the equipment was needed. "This review," she wrote in a confidential communication to the Ukrainian government, "may possibly conclude that EGPWS, or other similar systems, should be installed in all aircraft contracted" for U.N peacekeeping missions, she wrote.
The internal debate over safety has commercial implications for some of the U.N. helicopter suppliers, particularly Ukraine, which has been installing the EPGWS warning systems in some their choppers, and the Russians, who have not.
Late Monday, the U.N. privately read out the latest bids on multimillion contracts for three helicopters for the U.N. mission in Congo.
UTair offered the lowest price, making it the odds-on favorite to win the contract. The Ukrainian entrant, along with two other Russian competitors and air operators from Canada and Nepal, proposed more expensive bids, making it likely they will lose out.
U.N. requirements to accept the lowest bid that meets qualifications means that the only way UTair could lose the bid is if the U.N. determines its helicopters are not in compliance or it a further analysis of the bids determines that somehow the Russian aircraft are more expensive than their competitors. But the fact that the Russian aircraft don't have the advanced safety systems the U.N. is currently evaluating will not be taken into consideration in the final decision, according to officials familiar with the procurement process.
Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, reacted angrily to the decision, saying the U.N. has "learnt no lesson from the previous tragedy." If any crash happens in future because of the absence of the EGPWS, he said, the U.N. will bear responsibility for the "crime."
The Russia mission to the United Nations has declined to respond to request for comment on the issue. A UTair spokesman, Ilya Khimich, also did not respond to a request for comment on the latest deal. But Khimich has previously defended UTair safety standards, saying the Russian operator uses "meteorological location" and "radio altimeter" instruments "which detect artificial and natural obstacles, as well as the geometric height above the ground surface." He said that the U.N. didn't require "enhanced proximity warning systems because of [the] total absence of topographic maps of Africa, which are mandatory system software."
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courtesy of the United Nations
The latest round of Russian and U.S. diplomacy has yet to prove it can end a civil war in Syria that has already exacted well over 70,000 lives and threatened to engulf the region. But it has been enough to convince Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, to put his retirement plans on hold and serve as the diplomatic ringleader for the high-stakes negotiations.
The political conference -- which is designed to bring together Syrian officials, opposition leaders, and big-power foreign ministers -- is expected to begin in Geneva, Switzerland, around June 15 and last two to three days, though the final date has not been set in stone, according to diplomats involved in the preparation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has committed to open the event with a speech, but he will turn over the work of mediation to Brahimi, a veteran diplomatic trouble shooter who has negotiated peace deals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brahimi has confided to diplomats that he envisions the conference as a truncated version of the 2001 Bonn conference, where the former Algerian diplomat helped forge a transitional Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai to fill a political vacuum created by the U.S.-led military overthrow of the Taliban. The meeting will start large, with speeches by senior international dignitaries, and then shift into more intimate talks involving the warring parties.
Brahimi's goal is to gain support for the implementation of the June 2012 Geneva action plan, which outlined a roadmap for a political transition to a provisional government with full executive powers in Damascus. The Geneva pact -- which was backed by Russia and the United States -- represents the most important big-power agreement on a plan to resolve the conflict. But the deal has foundered in the face of a split over the wisdom of threatening further sanctions against the Syrian government to compel its compliance with the terms, as well as differences over the role of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's future.
There are several crucial matters that remain unresolved on the eve of talks, including the composition of the Syrian and opposition delegation, and the question of whether they will talk directly or communicate through Brahimi. The role of the United States and Russia, the key sponsors of the conference, and other major powers like Britain, China, France, and Turkey remains undecided. Some of the most controversial regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, which is arming the opposition, and Iran, which is arming the Syrian government, will not likely be invited.
So far, the Syrian government has proposed some five to six names of government representatives, including Prime Minister Wael al-Halki, Information Minister Omran Zoabi, and Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar. But the opposition has yet to select their own representatives or approve the Syrian government list.
Selecting an agreed slate has been complicated by the need to identify individuals who have sufficient authority over the Syrian combatants to compel them to accept a potential political deal, but who are not associated with human rights abuses.
The diplomacy is unfolding against a backdrop of deepening violence, not only in Syria, but in neighboring countries, including Lebanon, where fighting broke out on May 19 between residents of Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods in the town of Tripoli.
The pro-Syrian militia, Hezbollah, has sent fighters to aid Assad's forces in its battle for the town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border, Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East told the Security Council today. "The past month has seen repeated incidents of shelling from Syria into Lebanese territory that has caused casualties."
Serry also said that the U.N. secretary general "remains gravely concerned about the allegations of the use of chemical weapons." Citing "mounting reports on the use of chemical weapons" he urged the Syrian government to allow a U.N. team into the country to examine the allegations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, met in Amman, Jordan, today with the pro-opposition diplomatic coalition called the "Friends of Syria" -- a group that includes representatives of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Kerry said they would discuss how to help the opposition fashion a slate of representatives for the Geneva talks that constitute the "broadest base possible in Syria."
"We will discuss the framework, the structure of what we think Geneva ought to be. And obviously, that will have to be discussed with the Russians, with the United Nations, and with others in order to find the formula that moves us forward most effectively," Kerry said before the meeting. "We will listen to all voices with respect to the format, to the timing, to the agenda, and to the outcomes that should be discussed."
In the meantime, the U.S. and European powers sought to increase pressure on Syria to show flexibility in Geneva. On Monday, the European Union is expected to meet on Monday to decide whether to lift or ease an arms embargo that has limited the opposition's ability to purchase weapons. Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the United States may be prepared to provide military support to the opposition. "In the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate ... in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."
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Courtesty of the United Nations: Jean-Marc Ferre
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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For a rare afternoon at U.N. headquarters, the U.S. and Iranian governments took a break from bashing one another. Instead, they were getting ready to go to the mat.
The U.N. cafeteria provided the stage for a bout of international sports diplomacy, as American, Iranian, and Russian wrestlers gathered for lunch as well as an opportunity to rally behind a common cause: appealing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to keep wrestling in the Olympics.
Today's U.N. event -- sponsored by USA wrestling, FILA, and the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, and hosted by the U.N. Correspondent's Association -- comes one day before the Rumble on the Rails at Grand Central Station, a wrestling contest that will match up the world's best Greco Roman wrestlers from Iran, the world's top wrestling team, with the United States and Russia, two other national powerhouses.
It provided a forum for scripted diplomatic pronouncements about the importance of preserving the sport from senior Iranian and Russian diplomats, who recalled wrestling's long, revered place in their country's history. State Department officials were present at the event, but the U.S. government played a low-key role, absent from the list of speakers. Instead, a group of American wrestling advocates, including the actor Billy Baldwin, a former wrestler himself, took the podium to speak up for the sport on America's behalf.
Not surprisingly it wasn't Baldwin, but a young Olympian that best captured the spirit of the event, arguing that Greco Roman wrestling had something to teach international diplomats and politicians.
"We can get together, me and the Iranians and the Russians, and we can go out on the mat and physically do everything possible to beat the crap out of one another," explained Jake Herbert, 28, an American silver medalist in the 2012 Olympics. "No one is going to get killed; no one is going to get injured; you're going to leave it out on the mat and then be friends. We're united -- Iran, Russia, and the USA -- all through sports, something they have never been able to do through politics before and something they should be able to look at and learn."
In fact, the event provided a rare respite from the diplomatic clashes over a range of issues -- from Iran's nuclear ambitions to the international response to the Syria crisis -- that more typically define U.S. relations with Tehran. On Monday, Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, sounded off on Iran's upcoming assumption, through rotation, of the presidency of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament (CD), calling it "unfortunate and highly inappropriate."
"The United States continues to believe that countries that are under Chapter VII sanctions for weapons proliferation or massive human-rights abuses should be barred from any formal or ceremonial positions in U.N. bodies," she said. "While the presidency of the CD is largely ceremonial and involves no substantive responsibilities, allowing Iran -- a country that is in flagrant violation of its obligations under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and to the IAEA Board of Governors -- to hold such a position runs counter to the goals and objectives of the Conference on Disarmament itself. As a result, the United States will not be represented at the ambassadorial level during any meeting presided over by Iran."
Despite the administration's diplomatic campaign to isolate Iran, the United States has largely embraced the effort to improve relations with Iran through wrestling. American wrestlers have competed against the Iranians 11 times since 1998, when USA Wrestling sponsored its first match in Iran in decades -- a 1998 competition at the Iranian Takhti Club in Tehran. In February of this year, the U.S. wrestling team competed in Tehran.
Just days before, on Feb. 12, the International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that wrestling no long be considered a core sport at the Olympics. A final decision will be made in September.
Mike Novogratz, an investor who helped organize the Grand Central wrestling matches through his organization Beat the Streets Wrestling, said it was an "absurd decision" by the IOC board to propose remove wrestling from the Olympics in 2020, describing it was one of the most popular sports in the Muslim world.
Wrestling advocates, he said, are seeking to use the New York event, as well as an upcoming match in Los Angeles, to raise international awareness about the sport and convince the IOC to reverse its decision. As a fall back, he said, wrestling organizers, have been considering asking the Olympic governing body to readmit wrestling as a new sport. In order to do that, they are considering improving the sports marketing component and implementing some changes in the rules to make it more accessible to younger audiences who have had trouble understanding the sport's sometime arcane rules.
It wouldn't hurt to see the Obama administration embracing the sport of wrestling with the same passion as Russian President Vladimir Putin and outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Dan Gable, a 1972 Olympic gold medal winner who, as a coach, led the University of Iowa to 16 NCCA championships. "I really feel both in Russia and Iran wrestling comes right out of their government offices," he said. "Our president, Obama, he's not involved as much."
He said Obama had good reason to take an interest, noting that another American president from Illinois had a keen interest in the sport, one that he hoped Obama might be compelled to emulate. "Lincoln was a wrestler; he held matches on the White House lawn."
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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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When Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name from consideration for U.S. secretary of state in December, the consensus among many of her Security Council colleagues was that she had been unfairly denied the top American diplomatic post by Senate Republicans seeking to wound the newly reelected American president.
But one of her colleagues, Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, had a curious way of rising to her defense. (A little background: the two ambassadors have had a highly confrontational, though often affectionate relationship, that manifests itself in the kind of testy personal exchanges one might associate with a marital spat.)
In an interview broadcast on Dec. 13 on PBS, Russia's U.N. ambassador Churkin told PBS's Judy Woodruff, if the setback "means that ambassador Rice is going to spend four more years in the United Nations I'm going to have to ask for double pay. She has been one tough individual in the United Nations but we have had I think sometimes a stormy but most of the time friendly relationship with her. I would be looking forward to that, particularly if I'm given double pay for the additional effort."
Over the weekend, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post indicating that Rice was in line to become President Barack Obama's next national security advisor. The move is not imminent. Rice will likely remain in New York at least through the summer, as Thomas Donilon, the current office holder, plots his next move, either inside or outside of government.
During the reporting, I approached Amb. Churkin outside the Security Council to ask if was he was pleased to hear that they would not likely spend the next four years together. He declined to comment. Well, what about that raise? I asked.
"I didn't get it."
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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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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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An independent U.N. human rights researcher this morning announced the opening of an investigation into the use of drone attacks and other targeted assassinations by the United States and other governments.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, told reporters in London this morning that the "exponential" rise in American drones strikes posed a "real challenge to the framework of international law," according to a statement issued by his office. Emmerson said there was a need to develop a legal framework to regulate the use of drones, and ensure "accountability" for their misuse.
"The plain fact is that this technology is here to stay," he said. "It is therefore imperative that appropriate legal and operational structures are urgently put in place to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirement of international law.
The decision to open a drone investigation drew praise from critics of America's drone policies. "We welcome this investigation in the hopes that global pressure will bring the U.S. back into line with international law requirements that strictly limit the use of lethal force," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. "To date, there has been an abysmal lack of transparency and no accountability for the U.S. government's ever-expanding targeted killing program."
The Obama administration has defended its use of drones as a more humane alternative to military combat. John Brennan, the White House advisor on counterterrorism and the president's new nominee to lead the CIA, defended the U.S. program as "ethical and just," saying that the targeted nature of the strikes was more humane than traditional military strikes, lessening the prospects that civilians are killed.
Emmerson challenged what he characterized as Brennan's contention that the United States and its allies are engaged in a global war against a stateless enemy which requires the prosecution of war across international borders. Emmerson said that "central objective" of his inquiry is to "look at evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killings have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances, and to make recommendations concerning the duty of states to conduct throughout independent and impartial investigations into such allegations, with a view to securing accountability..."
Emmerson said that he has assembled a team of international lawyers and experts, including British lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice and New York University professor Sarah Knuckey, to help identify cases in which targeted killings may have resulted in civilian casualties. He said they would focus on 25 case studies in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, to see whether there is a case worthy of prosecution. He said he would present his findings in October.
Emmerson is an independent U.N. rights expert, and his investigation is not sanctioned by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay. But his association with the United Nations is likely to carry greater political weight than those of independent administration critics.
Emmerson first announced plans to look into the American drone program in October, on the eve of U.S. presidential elections, citing frustration with both candidates' positions on drones."The Obama administration continues to formally adopt the position that it will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the drone program," he said at the time. "In reality, the administration is holding its finger in the dam of public accountability," he said according to a prepared copy of the speech.
Emmerson said today that the investigation emerged as the result of a request last June from China, Pakistan, and Russia, to investigate the use of drones in counterterrorism operations.
"The inquiry that I am launching today is a direct response to the requests made to me by states at the human rights council last June, as well as to the increasing international concern surrounding the issue of remote targeted killing through the use of UAV's [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]," he said. "The exponential rise in the use of drone technology in a variety of military and non-military contexts represents a real challenge to the framework of established international law."
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Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, angered by real-time press leaks from a closed door Security Council meeting on Syria, threatened to urge the United Nations to strip the credentials of journalists who report on the content of confidential meetings.
The Russian envoy complained to representatives of the 15-nation council that confidential accounts of today's briefing by Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, were being electronically transmitted to reporters outside the room, who then broadcast the news on Twitter and other news outlets. He also protested the recent leak of numerous confidential draft statements Moscow circulated to the council earlier this week on Libya and Syria.
In order to stop such leaks in the future, Churkin recommended that fewer diplomats be allowed into the Security Council chamber, and asked that the U.N. Secretariat take steps to investigate the leak. Churkin also proposed that U.N. Security Council diplomats be prohibited from bringing cell phones into the Security Council sessions, preventing them from sending out emails, tweets, or text messages to reporters.
Churkin singled out the British news agency, Reuters, for sending out a news flash reporting that Brahimi had confirmed that President Bashar al-Assad would honor an Eid el-Adha cease fire later this week. The report, which was published before the session had concluded, prompted Churkin to propose that Reuters' news credentials be taken away throughout the course of the Syria conflict.
"We don't want another Murdoch soap opera in the United Nations," Churkin told reporters after the meeting, referring to a British press scandal involving illegal wiretaps by reporters in Rupert Murdoch's media empire. "We believe that this is a gross violation of professional ethics. And so well be fighting that, if need be, by stripping those who are resorting to this [of their] U.N. accreditation."
Churkin, who once served as a press spokesman for the Soviet Union, said: "I respect freedom of the media and I think we need to be open. But the payoff for that is that the media needs to respect the confidentiality of the world of the Security Council."
Issues debated within the Security Council's closed-doors proceedings have traditionally leaked to the press -- in fact, almost immediately after the session has concluded. In fact, most Security Council ambassadors, including Churkin, typically brief the press on the contents of closed-door deliberations as soon as the meeting ends
But with the advent of Twitter, U.N. reporters have been tweeting news from Security Council meetings almost in real time. Following Churkin's outburst, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., noted that the United States also had concerns about the leaks, citing her frustration over the recent reports on the Security Council's decision to cancel a trip to Afghanistan.
But she said the problem was not reporters, but the diplomats who divulge the content of closed-door proceedings to the press. Rice said that the United States and Russia have "different understanding of freedom of the press" and that the council shouldn't go after the press "because they are doing their job. She made very clear she didn't see stripping credentials as the proper way to deal with this."
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Last week, the foreign policy punditry, myself included, had declared the U.N. role in Syria all but dead.
But of course no U.N. diplomatic initiative ever truly dies.
Ban Ki-moon has vowed to conduct a global search for a new envoy to replace the joint U.N.- Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who announced he would step down later this month, saying it was impossible to compel the combatants in Syria to put down their guns while the Security Council's big powers squabbled over competing strategies.
France's top diplomat Laurent Fabius today announced he is organizing a Security Council meeting for foreign ministers on August 30 on the grounds that the 15-nation body "cannot remain silent in the face of the tragedy playing out in Syria," according to a statement released today by the French Foreign Ministry.
So, it should come as no shock to learn that the United Nations leadership is scrambling to convince the United States, Britain, and France, to allow the U.N. to maintain a presence in Syria after the mandate for the monitoring mission expires on August 19. The United States has argued that it's unconscionable for the U.N. monitors to remain in Syria to enforce a non-existent cease-fire agreement. They are like "sitting ducks," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told the council.
But the United Nations is reluctant to be seen abandoning the Syrians in their hour of need. The U.N. chief is expected to present the Security Council on August 16 with a plan to maintain a presence in Damascus beyond the end of the month.
Russia and China have called for keeping the U.N. mission in Syria as it is, saying it has kept the council informed about events on the ground and maintained an open line of communications with the warring factions. "Some useful work is being done by this mission," Vitaly Churkin, Russia's U.N. ambassador told reporters last week. "It's is not obvious at all what the strategy might be behind the call to terminate the mission.
Iran, meanwhile, appeared to be looking to the U.N. mission for help in securing the release of more than 40 Iranian hostages, though U.N. officials said the monitors were playing no such role.
Any new U.N. mission, which may or may not require a new Security Council mandate, would help coordinate the U.N.'s ongoing humanitarian activities in Syria, but more importantly, it would devote its attention to maintaining contact with combatants on both sides.
Responsibility for managing the mission may be transferred from the U.N. peacekeeping to the department of political affairs, which is headed by a former U.S. State Department official, Jeffrey Feltman.
The current chief of peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, signaled the U.N.'s intention to remain in Syria in a closed-door briefing to the Security Council last week. He said that the U.N. was still playing a role in aiding the efforts of U.N. relief organizations and that it was maintaining contacts with the key warring factions.
For the moment, the discussions about the fate of the mission have naturally been overtaken by events on the ground in Aleppo, where the Syrian government has launched a ground offensive aimed at rooting out rebel forces.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, wrote in the Washington Post today that the U.N. would be needed in Syria once the fighting ends.
"Washington should remain open to an active U.N. role in finalizing a transitional road map once the conditions for a new order are in place," Khalilzad wrote in a piece that urged the United States to arm the rebels while encouraging a military coup. "The United Nations has played such a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan, among other places, where U.N. special representatives catalyzed a process to establish an interim regime, draft a constitution and hold elections."
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At Turtle Bay, three times is not the charm. Today, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-backed resolution threatening the Syrian government with sanctions, upending four months of U.N. diplomacy aimed at stemming a crisis that has left more than 15,000 dead and brought the country to the brink of a full-fledged civil war.
The action dealt a potential blow to U.N. Arab League emissary Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan and cast doubts that Moscow and Beijing are prepared to apply pressure on Damascus to meet its commitments to constrain its troops. The resolution failed to pass by a vote of 11 for and 2 against, with two countries, Pakistan and South Africa, abstaining.
After the vote, the council's Western powers lambasted Russia and China for casting their third veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution seeking to pressure the government of President Bashar al-Assad to curtail its violent crackdown, initially on civilians and more recently on armed opposition groups.
"The Security Council has failed utterly in its most important task on its agenda this year. This is another dark day in Turtle Bay," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the 15-nation council after the vote. "This is the third time in 10 months that two members have prevented the Security Council from responding with credibility to the Syrian conflict. The first two vetoes were very destructive. This veto is even more dangerous and deplorable."
Rice said she was troubled by fate of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, saying the possibility that Syria might use "chemical weapons against its own people should be a concern for us all." These weapons, she said, "must remain secure and the regime held accountable for their use."
said the United States would no longer "pin its policy" on unarmed U.N.
observers lacking even "minimal support" from the Security Council, but would
work with a diverse coalition of countries outside the council to "bring
pressure to bear" on the Syrian regime.
But there were indications that the West was unprepared to abruptly withdraw the monitors from Syria. Britain circulated a short resolution that would extend the mandate of the mission for 30 days. Rice said that the United States "might be prepared" to support the British draft to allow a "safe and orderly withdrawal of U.N. monitors from Syria over the next month."
Still, the standoff in the Security Council raised doubts about the long term future of the U.N. mission in Syria, whose mandate expires at Friday midnight, and which has been severely restricted in its efforts to enforce a broken cease-fire agreement. In a press conference, Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), said that "it pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days is a testimony to that."
Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, defended his country's decision to veto the U.S.-backed resolution, saying it was "biased" in that it threatened only the Syrian government with U.N. sanctions, while doing nothing to constrained an armed opposition movement that has carried out a series of ever more violent attacks against government targets, including a devastating strike on Tuesday that reached into the heart of Assad's national security leadership.
Churkin claimed that the Western approach is designed to "fan the flames" of violence in Syria, pursuing their own "geopolitical ambitions in the region and paving the way for the military push to remove Assad from power. He said Russia "simply cannot accept" a resolution threatening sanctions and foreign military involvement. Rice and other Western diplomats denied categorically that the resolution would pave the way to military action.
China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, reacted angrily to assertion by the United States and its European allies that it was shielding the Syrian regime and undercutting prospects for peace. "They are completely wrong," he said. He accused the Westerns sponsors of the resolution of pursuing "a rigid and arrogant approach" to the negotiations on the approach to Syria, refusing repeated efforts by China and other countries to negotiate amendments into the Western draft.
Kofi Annan's spokesman issued a statement saying that he was "disappointed that at this critical stage the U.N. Security Council could not unite and take the strong and concerted action he had urged and hoped force."
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Russia and other key powers have signaled support U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's plan for a political transition leading to the establishment of a national unity government, according to U.N. based diplomats. But Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, cautioned this morning that no final agreement has been concluded.
Annan will host a meeting in Geneva this Saturday of key foreign ministers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, to seek and endorsement for his latest plan to end a bloody 16-month uprising that has left more than 10,000 dead and raised fear of a widening sectarian conflict engulfing the region.
Annan hopes to use the meeting to galvanize support among key global and regional powers, particularly the United States and Russia, for his transitional plan, and increase pressure on the Syrian government and the opposition to accept it.
Annan's plan -- which is detailed in a three page non-paper that has not been made public -- would call on the key players in Syria and their foreign supporters to end the violence and create an "environment of calm and peace that will allow a transition," according to a U.N.-based diplomat briefed on the plan.
If those conditions are met, Annan would lead a mediation effort aimed at forging a national unity government comprised members of the Syrian government and individuals drawn from the disparate opposition. But the new government would "exclude those who are detrimental to stability and reconciliation and the transition," according to the diplomat. Russia, the official said, has "signaled to Annan that they can accept the plan."
The plan for a national unity government, which was first reported last night by Bloomberg and Reuters, makes no mention of the what role President Bashar al-Assad might play in a new government, according to a diplomat familiar with the plan, but diplomats who favor his departure say that it is impossible to see the Syrian president as anything but an obstacle to a stable transition.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the Security Council earlier this month that Moscow was not "wedded" to President Assad and would agree to his departure as long as it resulted from an agreement by the Syrian government and the opposition. It remains unlikely, however, that Russia will force Assad's hand.
Lavrov voiced irritation that elements of the
Annan plan had been leaked to the press ahead of the Geneva meeting. "There
are no agreed drafts. Work on a possible final document continues," Lavrov
said. The fate of Assad "must be decided within the framework of a Syrian
dialogue by the Syrian people themselves," Lavrov told a news conference
with the Tunisian foreign minister, according to a report by the French news agency, AFP.
"Foreign players should not be dictating their solutions to the Syrians.
We do not and cannot support any intervention or solutions dictated from
Clinton and Lavrov are scheduled to meet on Friday in St. Petersburg, where they will see if they can narrow their differences over Syria. But diplomats said the United States and Russia still differ sharply over the best course for halting the violence there, where the pace of killings, which dipped in the days following the April 12 ceasefire agreement, has since returned to pre-ceasefire levels, according to top U.N. officials.
The Annan paper also calls on the Syrian parties to stop the violence, end all human rights abuses, and guarantee the protection of minorities and accountability for perpetrators of the worst abuses.
In anticipation of the new approach, the U.N. peacekeeping department is preparing plans to change the mandate of the U.N. Supervising Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) from monitoring a non-existent ceasefire agreement and patrolling Syria's conflict ridden towns to mediating an end to the conflict. The final configuration of the new U.N. mission will have to be approved by the Security Council.
Annan's plan for a political transition had stalled earlier this week over Russia's reluctance to endorse it and over the composition of the negotiating bloc -- or "action group" -- that would be invited to participate in this weekend's meeting.
The action group includes the foreign ministers of the five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China -- plus Turkey, the secretaries general of the United Nations and Arab League, and the foreign ministers of Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, all of whom chair Arab League committees concerned with Syria.
Annan wanted Iran, one of Syria's closest allies, and Saudi Arabia, a military supporter of Syria's armed opposition, to participate in the meeting. But Clinton had made it clear to Annan that she would not participate if Iran attended the meeting. In a compromise, Annan decided not to invite either Tehran or Riyadh, but to brief the two governments on the outcome of the meeting.
In New York, Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, told reporters on Wednesday that "a very important fact that cannot be ignored by anybody is the influence and constructive role that the Islamic Republic of Iran has in the region. So if some powers do not want to benefit from this influence and constructive role that's their problem." But, he added: "from the beginning we have supported Mr. Kofi Annan's plan and we believe that's the best way to resolve the issues in Syria. Any kind of consultation by [Annan] with the Islamic Republic of Iran is welcomed any time."
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A proposal by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to convene a high-level meeting of key international and regional powers in Geneva on Saturday, June 30, to promote a political transition in Syria appeared to be stalled today over differences between the United States and Russia, according to council diplomats.
The United States objects to Annan's plan to invite Iran, a close supporter of the Syrian regime, while Russia has been unwilling to endorse Annan's plan for a political transition as a condition for participating in such a meeting. Annan's deputy, Nasser Al Kidwa, told the Security Council behind closed doors that Annan is nearing a decision on whether or not to host the meeting of key foreign ministers, according to a confidential account of the meeting.
"We are awaiting clarity today on whether there is sufficient substantive agreement as well as consensus on the scope of participation before the envoy decides whether the meeting should proceed on the 30th as planned," Al Kidwa told the 15-nation council, according to a copy of his statement.
Earlier this month, Annan, the joint special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, proposed creating a "contact group" of key global and regional powers who could ratchet up pressure on the Syrian government and opposition to halt the violence there and begin talks on the country's political future. Annan is now referring to the proposed negotiating group as an "action group."
But the negotiations have bogged down over the question of Iran's attendance and over the degree to which the plan would lock President Bashar al-Assad into a process that would lead to his exit from power. Annan has tentatively penciled in a June 30 date for the meeting, but has yet to secure agreement from Russia and the United States to participate under his terms.
Over the weekend, Annan presented the permanent five members of the Security Council, including the United States and Russia, with a confidential "non-paper" that outlined the agenda for such a meeting, including the "guiding principles for a political transition" in Syria, according to U.N. officials and Security Council diplomats.
Al Kidwa outlined the basic elements of the plan to the full council in a closed-door meeting today. He said it would include agreement on "guidelines and principles for a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," read a copy of his confidential statement.
It would also "identify steps and measures" -- including an immediate cessation of violence -- "to secure full implementation" of Annan's six-point peace plan, Al Kidwa said. Finally, he said the plan calls for agreement on a series of "actions" to support Annan's mediation efforts in Syria.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council that Washington supports Annan's political roadmap. But Washington has continued to oppose a separate proposal by Annan to invite Iran, one of Syria's strongest backers, to participate in the meeting.
Russia favors Iran's participation but has also not agreed to the terms outlined in Annan's non-paper. Moscow's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has agreed to travel to Geneva for such a meeting.
Annan "is of course using his best efforts to facilitate a common position on the proposed outcomes of the action group," Al Kidwa said. "But he has also been steadfast in his resolve that an action group must be just that, and not a talking shop. The Joint Special envoy has made it clear that it is only worth holding this meeting on 30 June if the outcome is meaningful."
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Last week, I asked a U.N. Security Council diplomat to give me a read out of China's reaction to the Houla massacre of 108 civilians during a closed-door session of the 15-nation council.
The diplomat paused for a moment, then confessed to being totally unable to recall what was said.
It was probably something about the need to pursue a peaceful outcome to the conflict and the importance of respecting sovereignty and letting the Syrians work it out themselves, the diplomat surmised. The same thing, in other words, that China says about virtually every crisis that comes before the Security Council.
China has largely weathered the Syrian diplomatic crisis, which has brought it into direct conflict with the Arab world, by drawing as little attention to itself as possible and letting Russia take the heat for sheltering President Bashar al-Assad from Security Council pressure.
But the effort to remain under the radar will be tested this month as China begins its month-long stint as Security Council president, a role that began Monday with an obligatory council presidency press conference that focused mostly on Syria.
In the briefing, China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, expressed concern about this "horrible thing" that happened in Houla, assured reporters that China has no "intention to protect anybody" in Damascus, and said the perpetrators, whomever they may be, need to be held accountable.
But when pressed about next steps in the council, Li quickly returned to script.
"We respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and also we respect the choices made by Syrian people," he told reporters. "What we really want to see is that the sovereignty of that country can be safeguarded and the destiny of that country should be in the hands of the people of Syria."
Translation: The Security Council should keep its meddling in Syria to a minimum, resist U.S. and European calls for the imposition of U.N. sanctions, and set aside more time for special envoy Kofi Annan to convince the Syrian government and the opposition to start talks on the country's future. "We have to line up behind Kofi Annan," Li said.
In February, China joined Russia for the second time in vetoing a resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on demonstrators. The resolution, which was backed by the Arab League, also demanded that the Syrian government begin negotiations on a transitional government.
China faced intense criticism in the Arab world in the weeks after the veto, prompting Li to undertake a high-level visit to the region to explain China's position in the council and try to sooth Arab leaders' anger, according to council diplomats. Still, the anger has focused most sharply on Russia, and the launch of Annan's mediation effort has provided Beijing with an opportunity to throw its weight behind a diplomatic initiative with solid backing from the Arab League.
But with the Annan plan on the ropes and China, alongside Russia, standing in the way of tougher Security Council action, it is going to be increasingly difficult for Beijing to continue to keep its head down and avoid damage to its diplomatic standing in the region.
"I think China's reputational damage in the region, so far, has been limited,' said Salman Shaikh, a former U.N. official who serves as director of the Brookings Doha Center. "In economic terms, its trading volumes continue to rise and will do so markedly over the next decade or so. Its relations with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are now strategic.... It is difficult to say how damage is being done with regard to Arab public opinion. While Chinese flags are being burned regularly in Syria, the rest of the Arab street, I believe, is focused on Russia. For now, at least, Moscow is deflecting serious Arab public wrath."
But Syria still poses a long-term challenge for Chinese policymakers, who desperately want the crisis to end peacefully but are at a loss about how to promote a workable alternative in the event that the Annan plan unravels. "There is also something deeper at play here," Shaikh added. "China has struggled to find a narrative that fits with the Arab Awakenings. The so-called ‘Chinese Model' of economic reform but not political opening -- which has been stressed by fallen Arab dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and now by President Assad in Syria -- no longer fits with the desires of Arabs who also want political change and democratic political systems. For this reason, China will continue to tread wearily."
Indeed, the crisis has caused increasing concern in Beijing, which is worried about its long-term relations with Persian Gulf sheikdoms that have rallied against Assad as part of a broader push to counter the influence of their prime regional rival and Damascus's chief ally, Iran.
American and European policymakers have tried to play on this very anxiety by pushing China to break ranks with Russia, which has deeper economic, military, and intelligence ties with Syria.
Back in April, "there was a glimmer of hope among Western diplomats that China could be persuaded to change positions," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "The reality is that the Chinese gain far more in terms of diplomatic tactics by staying closer to the Russians," particularly on Iran, which has become more vital to Beijing than it is to Moscow because of China's energy needs.
"If the Russians are worried about losing Chinese support on Syria, the Chinese are worried about losing Russian support on Iran," Gowan explained. "There is a sort of Chinese fear that if they were to make a shift on Syria the Russians would undercut them on Iran. The two powers are locked together in the face of Western criticism on both issues."
Indeed, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to increase their cooperation at the United Nations during a summit meeting in Beijing on Tuesday. "Both sides oppose external intervention into the Syrian situation and oppose regime change by force," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters earlier in the day.
For China and Russia, the best way to prevent those scenarios is to keep the Annan plan alive.
"What happened in Houla is definitely a setback for the effort to solve the crisis in Syria and it has caused colossal damage to Kofi Annan's mediation effort," said China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong. "What should we do? Should we back off? Or should we surge ahead, march on? We have no choice. We have to support him."
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Syria's decision today to hold its fire may prove yet short-lived, confirming critics' contention that President Bashar al-Assad simply cannot be trusted to fulfill his commitments.
But for one brief instance, Syria's action helped to turn the narrative on its head, providing a rare opportunity for Damascus and its closest friends to make the case that a consensual, softball approach to the crisis could bear fruit.
China's U.N. ambassador, Li Baodong, who has scarcely uttered a word in public on the Syrian crisis, stepped out before the Security Council stakeout today to claim credit, in Mandarin and English, for his government's role in pursuing a cease-fire. In a lengthy exchange with reporters, he pointed out that special envoy Kofi Annan had "spoken highly" of China's role in backing his mediation efforts.
Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that today's development vindicated his government's much-maligned stance on Syria and that the world should recognize Moscow was right. He said that top Russian diplomats, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, had intervened at critical moments in the diplomatic process to help Annan secure Syria's support for his plan, and that its contribution had been unfairly dismissed by the press. "You should give us credit; we have every right to be given credit," Churkin said.
Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, said that the world's recognition of its decision to stop shooting only provided further evidence that it is Syria alone that has pursued peace in good faith, while its critics -- from Washington to Istanbul to Riyadh -- have been seeking to "torpedo" Annan's peace efforts by providing support to opposition military forces. While most observers agreed that the cease-fire was largely holding, both Damascus and the opposition accused the other of some violations.
"The credibility of the Syrian government has been confirmed," Jaafari told reporters. "There are still some officials who are totally disappointed and frustrated ... because the cessation of violence succeeded this morning."
The effort to secure plaudits for pursuing a political settlement contrasts with the blocking role these governments have played in recent months in downplaying and minimizing the brutality of Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters, a campaign of violence that has left more than 9000 dead, mostly of them unarmed civilians, during the past 13 months.
In a closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council, Annan reminded the council's 15 members that he personally visited a refugee camp this week in Turkey, which absorbed a flood of more than 6,000 Syrian refugees during the past five days, victims of a government assault on Syrian towns.
"As of this afternoon, as of this moment, the situation looks calmer. We are following it very closely," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva today. "The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes since many promises previously made by the government of Syria had not been kept. The onus is on the government of Syria to prove that their words will be matched by their deeds at this time."
But while Ban cautioned that a single gunshot could unravel the cease-fire, pitching the country into an even more deadly civil war, he made it clear that the world's key powers would now have to approach the conflict in a new way, and would now be required to apply pressure on the opposition to make compromises in a diplomatic process that places Assad's government at the center of action.
"Today's lessening of violence in Syria is a first, fragile step towards peace that needs to be strengthened and sustained," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. "The Syrian government has a record of failing to keep its promises. It has the opportunity to change that now: it should seize it. We need to see visible, verifiable, and indisputable signs of change. The opposition must also ensure that they adhere to the cease-fire and work to strengthen and broaden it."
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Last week, Russia and China's U.N. veto of a resolution to stem the violence in Syria and set forth a transition of power from Bashar al-Assad appeared to sideline the United Nations from the crisis.
But today, the U.N. appeared to be moving back into the game. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to consider participating in a joint Arab League-U.N. monitoring mission in Syria and appointing a joint special envoy to deal with the crisis.
"Yesterday, I spoke with the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, about how to end the killings and begin political negotiations," Ban told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday. "He informed me that he intends to send the Arab League observer mission back to Syria and asked for U.N. help. He further suggested that we consider a joint observer mission in Syria, including a joint special envoy."
The move comes as key Western and Arab leaders are weighing the possibility of going to the U.N. General Assembly to seek support for a resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition in Syria. They would argue that China and Russia's veto over the weekend of a similar resolution in the U.N. Security Council has prevented the U.N. security body from shouldering its responsibility for managing peace and security in Syria.
The move came on the heels of a high-level visit by Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Russia's top intelligence official, Mikhail Fradkov, to Damascus, where they met with the Syrian president. Assad said he was willing to allow the Arab League monitors to resume their work in Syria. He also committed to participate in Russian-brokered talks with the opposition. The Syrian opposition, however, has been unwilling to enter negotiations with Assad.
Ban, meanwhile, warned that the violence in Syria threatens to spread throughout the region, implicitly faulting Russia and China for blocking Security Council action. At the same time, he echoed criticism from Arab and Western leaders that Assad is responsible for the mass loss of life in Syria.
"For too many months, we have watched this crisis deepen. We have seen escalating violence, brutal crackdowns, and tremendous suffering by the Syrian people," he said. "I deeply regret that the Security Council has been unable to speak with one clear voice to end the bloodshed.
"The failure to do so is disastrous for the people of Syria. It has encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people. Thousands have been killed in cold blood, shredding President Assad's claims to speak for the Syrian people."
"I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighborhoods, is a grim harbinger of worse to come," he added. "Such violence is unacceptable before humanity. How many deaths will it take to halt this dangerous slide toward civil war and sectarian strife?"
The Obama administration, meanwhile, made it clear that the United States has little interest in using military force to pressure Assad to leave, as it did in Libya last year. "It's important to note there is not a clamor in New York, from the Arab League, even among many of the opposition elements in Syria, for foreign military intervention," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation in a discussion at the Core Club on Monday. "And there really isn't much in way of active debate and discussion about that as a potential immediate next step."
"What we are focused on is increasing the political pressure and the economic pressure on Assad and increasing his sense of isolation," she added. "There's more that the European Union could do; there's more that the neighboring countries can do.… There needs to be a transition in Syria that ends the killing and the horrific violence and leads to a much more peaceful and democratic disposition for the people. And we're going to continue and intensify the political and economic and diplomatic pressure toward that end with the expectation that, indeed despite this setback, the tide is not running in the favor of the Assad regime."
But is it possible to dislodge Assad without the use of military force? "I think … given the precise nature of the Syrian challenge, it would be far better and indeed possible and, we hope, probable that this can be resolved without the use of force and through diplomatic and economic means," said Rice.
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She called him duplicitous.
He said she needed to watch her "expletives" and behave a bit more Victorian.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, have been slinging insults at each other as their governments have sharply diverged over crises from Libya to Syria.
So what does Rice really think of her big power sparring partner?
"Look, we've had a little fun," she said, recalling how she once projected an image of Churkin's face inside the head of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas character on the wall of the Security Council. "On a personal level, I think I am not ashamed to say [we] have a lot of fun together. We fight, we laugh and sometime we're in agreement and sometimes we're not."
In recent weeks, the American and Russian envoys have mostly been fighting over their sharply diverging approaches to Syria, where the U.S. is supporting an Arab plan to nudge President Bashar al-Assad from power, and Russia is backing its own competing initiative that would preserve a role for the Syrian leader in any political settlement.
On Monday night, Foreign Policy's editor in chief, Susan Glasser, AfPak channel editor Peter Bergen and I sat down with Ambassador Rice at an event organized by the New America Foundation to discuss her views on her Russian counterpart, Russia and China's double veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria this past weekend, and her prospects for becoming the countries next U.S. secretary of state -- if President Barack Obama wins reelection.
Here we've compiled a few highlights from the event, starting with a replay of some of the diplomatic wrangling that proceeded Russia and China's historic double veto, which killed off a Western- and Arab-backed resolution condemning Syria's repression of demonstrators and endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition in Syria.
Rice maintained that the there was a moment when it looked like the council had secured agreement during "roller-coaster" negotiations, only to see China and Russia backtrack. "I thought at a few points it was doomed to fail but "we ultimately…hammered out what we thought was a compromise that could be sold in everybody's capitals. We were careful in how we framed that with the press. It was something literally all of us needed to send back for guidance…we all hoped we might be in a position to get a yes after that."
That was not to happen.
Russia's foreign ministry declared the draft unacceptable on Friday morning, privately informing their counterparts that they would propose some amendments. But Moscow only formally presented the amendments to the council as it prepared to hold a scheduled vote on its resolution. A last minute meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich on the sidelines of a security conference failed to close the gap. "The amendments that were tabled were widely viewed as not only too late but wrecking amendments, amendments that would have gutted the heart of the resolution," said Rice. "It was clear at that stage that we were at an impasse and it I was equally clear that with the killing intensifying on the ground and reaching the horrific levels that it did on Saturday that there was no way the council was going to do as the Russians had sought which was too delay this vote."
But even in the minutes leading up to the vote, representatives from key Arab and Islamic governments, including Egypt and Pakistan, made their final effort to lessen the blow, pressing China to break ranks with the Russians, according to Rice."Just before the vote, a throng of Arab ambassadors encircled the Chinese ambassador, [Li Baodong], and were pleading with him not to stand with the Russians in vetoing the resolution."
Ambassador Churkin recently told me that as a Russian diplomat it is not easy to ditch close allies, and that Moscow was more loyal to its friends than others. Many in the international community, he said, appreciated Russia's stance. But Rice contended that Russia and China will pay a steep political price for its decision to block the Arab League initiative. "I think you've heard the prime minister of Qatar [Hamad bin Jassim and [Arab League Secretary General Nabil] Elaraby both speak of the damage that they believe Russia has done in vetoing the resolution potentially perhaps, probably giving Assad a license to kill," said Rice. "I do think that when the dust settles and when there's a democratic government in Syria they will not forget recent history anymore than the Libyans have forgotten recent history. It will be a very different landscape that the Russians and Chinese are looking at and they may look back on this…as something they wish they could take back."
"This was the Arab members all together coming to the Security Council for something quite specific, it wasn't the use of force it wasn't sanctions, it was blessing a political transition and I think we certainly thought that was an initiative that was worthy of strong international support and U.S. support in the council," said Rice. "The fact that it was blocked by an ever more isolated Russia and China may in the short term serve to embolden Assad but I think over the…middle to long term will in fact weaken him and embolden the region to stand ever stronger in favor of their goal which is a democratic transition."
In defending its decision to cast a veto, Russia has maintained that it had acted to halt the West from using the Security Council, as it had in Libya, to bring about regime change in Syria. Churkin contends that the West abuses the Security Council in Libya by using a resolution crafted to protect civilians to overthrow an internationally recognized government. Rice disputed that claim.
"First of all, using Libya as an excuse to do the wrong thing on Syria is completely disingenuous. We made very, very clear -- I made very, very clear -- in laying out to the Security Council what this authority would entail. The protection of civilians, as mandated and drafted, in what became Resolution 1973, was going to involve air strikes against [Muammar] Qaddafi's command and control centers, air strikes against moving columns, air strikes against any asset of the regime that would threaten civilians. We discussed this at great detail and we, in fact, debated language that laid all of that out in great specificity so that countries could not claim that they didn't know exactly what they were granting when passing that resolution," said Rice. "We wanted the council to make a clear eyed decision. If they hadn't supported this it wouldn't have happened…But in voting for it, or not opposing it, the council gave a clear-cut green light. Now there may be some cynical folks who say that perhaps the Russians and the Chinese were trying to give the coalition -- NATO, and Western and Arab powers -- enough room to hang themselves and they're frustrated that that wasn't exactly the outcome. I don't know. But I do know it was very clear what they were voting for and the outcome was one that was potentially foreseen ... although I understand that you have to be somewhat nuanced to see it. But the resolution and the actions of NATO really were genuinely to protect civilians, they were not designed for regime change…What transpired was that, in addition to the NATO air campaign to protect civilians, [there was] growth and transformation of the opposition. They cohered ultimately into a sufficiently capable multi-front force to ultimately topple Qaddafi."
The U.S.-Russian rift over Syria has drawn some comparisons in Washington to the diplomatic paralysis that plagued U.N. diplomacy at the height of the Cold War. Rice challenged that comparison, saying that while the two powers different sharply over important issues, they have worked closely on a range of others. "I don't think…the difficulties we have had in the wake of the Libya vote are necessarily indicative of a return to the Cold War. In so many ways we're past that. In my three years, the council has passed very important and broad-reaching sanctions against Iran [and North Korea]. We have together supported the emergence of an independent South Sudan. We have without rancor or difficulty backed important U.N. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq [among many other issues]. There are going to be issues that are difficult. We've had our share of those of late and they…divide us and even get rancorous. But I don't think is a fair characterization of the body of work that we've been doing over the last several years and I expect will be doing going forward."
Speaking of issues that divide, I asked Rice about the prospects that the Security Council could be used to rally greater economic pressure on Iran. I told Rice that I'd recently asked Churkin if he would consider new sanctions against Tehran and he said: "No chance, no chance, no chance…ever." Asked if Churkin is right, Rice said that it may be difficult to reach agreement. She explained that Russia and China, frustrated that they had imposed U.N. sanctions, were infuriated that the United States and Europe followed up with their own sanctions that in some case harmed their own commercial interests.
"There is a certain logic to their point of view," Rice said."We don't agree with it. But there saying ‘why should we adopt strong sanctions in the council, agree to adhere to them, only to be hit upside the head with a bunch of national measures that we didn't subscribe to? How many times are we going to play this game?'"
So have U.N. sanctions against Iran run their course?
"Never say never," Rice said. "But I would say, barring something unforeseen, I think it will be a little while before there is an appetite for further action" at the United Nations.
Finally, Rice was asked if Obama wins reelection, should we expect to see her serving as his new secretary of state? She said: "I love my job and I think the only person who can answer that question is President Obama. I will do what I am asked to do or what I'm not asked to do. So, we'll see. But it has been an enormous privilege and a whole lot of fun to serve again and to serve at the United Nations, which is never dull and I feel very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing."
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The U.N. Security Council has been waiting for weeks to receive its marching orders from the Arab League on how it should respond to the violence in Syria.
On Sunday, the Arab League spoke, issuing a statement that reiterated its previous demands that the government of President Bashar al-Assad release all political prisoners, permit peaceful demonstrations, withdraw its heavy weapons from cities, and return to the barracks.
But the 15-nation council struggled to forge its own concerted response to the crisis.
Sunday's action differed from previous Arab League statements in that, for the first time, it outlined a political roadmap that would require Assad yield authority to a transitional government. The plan, which is similar to a transitional proposal for Yemen, would require Syrian government and opposition figures to begin an Arab League-brokered national dialogue within two weeks. The two sides would establish a national unity government within two months, headed by an agreed figure, to prepare for eventual free and fair elections. It remains unclear precisely whether Assad would play any role in the country's future.
Germany's U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig, sought to build on the agreement, which he described optimistically, as a "game changer," and reiterated his government's call for a briefing to the U.N. Security Council by the Arab League secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, and the Qatari chair of the Arab League committee dealing with the crisis. Qatar has been among the Arab League's sharpest critics of Syria.
The measure appears calculated to step up international pressure on Assad to halt the killing of civilians, and build political support in the council for a tough resolution condemning Syria's conduct. Germany and other European council members are also mulling the possibility of introducing a resolution that would endorse the Arab League proposal.
"We believe now more than ever that we need strong council action, a clear message to both the Syrian regime and the Syrian people," Wittig said at a briefing with U.N.-based reporters this morning. "Only real support and endorsement of the Arab League's decisions will do, everything else will be perceived as much too weak. But let me also say very clearly: We want Arab ownership in the solution of this Syrian crisis, but with strong support of the council."
Russia made it clear, however, it would not endorse the Arab League decision in whole.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said in an interview today that he welcomed a number of elements in the Arab League agreement, including a call for political negotiations between the government and the opposition within two weeks. Churkin said that while he hasn't yet received instructions from Moscow on how to respond, he was "seriously concerned" by the Arab League decision to outline the terms of the political transition.
"This is something which I think is not going to be acceptable by the Syrians," Churkin said in an interview at the Russian mission to the United Nations." I don't want to be rude of course, I want to be polite," he said. But "this is an effort by the Arab League, if I understand correctly, to put a pre-cooked solution on the table.... This is rather top-heavy when they say the president must resign."
Churkin also proposed that the Security Council expand the list of invitees to a potential Arab League briefing to the Security Council on Syria to include the head of the monitoring mission: Lt. General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa Dabi, a controversial Sudanese military official who has been criticized for going too soft on the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, reports surfaced today that Russia signed a $550 million deal to sell Syria 36 new fighter jets.
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U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin have exchanged a series of highly personalized attacks against one another in the past 24 hours, signaling a sharp deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations at the United Nations over the response to the Arab Spring.
But the exchange reached a new level today when Rice's spokesman, Mark Kornblau, while watching Churkin insult his boss, Tweeted an edited picture of Churkin inside the face of the "Grinch Who Stole Christmas." The U.S. delegation had previously shared the photo with the Security Council, including Churkin, last year when the Russian envoy resisted Rice's efforts to convene a Security Council meeting with the world's youth. He apparently laughed then. Not clear if he thought it was funny this time around.
The latest diplomatic row has sharpened since the Russian envoy has begun pressing for a U.N.-backed investigation into allegations that NATO killed civilians during its air campaign against forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi.
It comes as Russia has frustrated U.S. and European efforts to use the Security Council to ratchet up political pressure, through the threat of sanctions, on Syria to compel President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent crackdown on protesters.
Rice suggested that the real intent of the Russian initiative was to divert attention from Syria's conduct. "Oh, the bombast and bogus claims," Rice said on Wednesday, after listening to Churkin speak outside the council. "Welcome to December. Is everybody sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?"
Regarding Libya, Rice added: "Now, obviously, the United States and NATO partners regret any loss of civilian lives, but we also know that these are being already investigated, including by the Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry...we welcome that. We note that neither the Libyan government nor the majority of members of the Security Council expressed any interest in any additional investigations. And, frankly, I think it's not an exaggeration to say that this is something of a cheap stunt to divert attention from other issues and to obscure the success of NATO and its partners -- and indeed the Security Council -- in protecting the people of Libya.... So...let us see this for what it is: it is duplicitous, it's redundant, it's superfluous and it's a stunt."
Churkin organized its own press briefing today to respond to Rice's comments, maintaining that the United States and its European partners are seeking to use the council to bring about regime change in Syria, and that their refusal to support a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict has exacerbated tensions, driving the country into an increasingly violent civil war.
But the briefing quickly got personal, as Churkin recalled what he described as a "rather unusual outburst" by Rice.
"This is not an issue that can be drowned out by expletives. You might recall the words one could hear: bombast and bogus claims, cheap stunt, duplicitous, redundant, superfluous, stunt," he said. "Oh, you know, you cannot beat a Stanford education, can you," said Churkin mocking Rice's alma mater.
"We here that the Obama administration wants to establish a dialogue with the international community in the United Nations, and in the Security Council," he added. "If that is to be the case, if this is the intention, really this Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian, because certainly this is not the language in which we intend to discuss matters with our partners in the Security Council."
What did Rice have to say about that?
"Happy Holidays to my good friend Amb Churkin, who's clearly had a long month as Sec Council president," Rice wrote in a Tweet after the briefing. "Hope he gets some well deserved rest."
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The United States has long used its veto power in the Security Council to shield Israel from condemnation for its settlement program. But that didn't prevent Israel from getting a walloping at the press stakeout outside the Security Council today.
Several regional groups, including the Security Council's four European powers, denounced Israel's construction of new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying they are imperiling prospects for a two-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and undermining hopes of a return to negotiations. The U.N. Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab Group, and IBSA (comprised of India, Brazil, and South Africa) also delivered statements blaming the Israeli government for its settlement policies.
Their remarks followed a briefing by a top U.N. official, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who expressed "serious concern" over the announcement of several new housing projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that run "contrary to international law," and the demolition of some 57 Palestinian buildings. He said it was also "deeply troubling" that attacks against Palestinian civilians and mosques by Israeli settlers had become "a systematic occurrence." Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forcefully condemned the violent attacks, and vowed to stop them, according to Fernandez-Taranco.
But the tough criticism reflected frustration with the stalled peace process and the United States' refusal, through its veto power, to contemplate a role for the U.N. Security Council in pressuring Israel to change its behavior. It also suggested that that the majority of U.N. members are positioning themselves to place most of the blame on Israel for a breakdown in peace talks with the Palestinians, who themselves have refused to hold direct talks with Netanyahu's government until it halts the settlements and accepts a series of other conditions.
"Maybe [Israel] needs a gentle prod from the international community, including the Security Council, from time to time," said Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations. It is "so very frustrating ... that we cannot do anything on the Israeli-Palestinian issue."
The Obama administration maintains that Israel's ongoing settlement activities are illegitimate, but in February it vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing Israeli settlements on the ground and made clear that it prefers differences between the Israelis and Palestinians be resolved through direct talks, not by Security Council action. It has also blamed the Palestinians for jeopardizing the prospects for new peace talks by pursuing the statehood bid, including the decision to secure recognition as a state in the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
On Sept. 23, the Middle East Quartet -- which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations -- outlined a road map that envisioned a resumption of talks between the Israelis and Palestinians within one month, and the formulation of a set of comprehensive peace proposals within three months. The first deadline passed without an agreement; the three-month mark comes later this week.
"Israel's continuing announcements to accelerate the construction of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, send a devastating message. We call on the Israeli government to reverse these steps," Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall-Grant said on behalf of the council's European Union members. Joined by representatives of France, Germany, and Portugal, Lyall-Grant said "the viability of the Palestinian state that we want to see and the two-state solution that is essential for Israel's long-term security are threatened by the systematic and deliberate expansion of settlements. Settlements are illegal under international law and represent a serious blow to the Quartets' efforts to restart peace negotiations."
The United States and Israel did not take up the microphone outside the Security Council to respond to the charges. But an Israel spokeswoman later reacted sharply to the onslaught of criticism in a statement.
"This is a badge of shame for the international community. Instead of focusing on the pressing issues before it, the Security Council chooses to focus on settlements," said Karean Peretz, spokeswoman for the Israeli mission to the United Nations. "While innocent civilians are slaughtered in Syria, terrorist groups operate freely in Gaza, U.N. forces are being attacked in Lebanon and Iran seeks nuclear weapons, the Security Council remains silent and paralyzed." Peretz said that "the main obstacle to peace, has been, and remains, the Palestinians' claim to the so-called right of return and its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state."
Payton Knopf, a spokesman for the U.S. mission, had this to say: "The only way to resolve the outstanding issues between Israelis and Palestinians is through serious and substantive direct negotiations. We believe Security Council action on final status issues would only harden the positions of both sides and make the resumption of negotiations more difficult."
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Add another name to Syria's growing enemies list: Barbara Walters.
Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar Jaafari, denounced the ABC broadcaster's handling of a prime time interview she conducted with President Bashar al-Assad, the first by an American television journalist since public protests began threatening the Syrian leader's rule.
"She distorted the truth," he told reporters outside the Security Council late on Monday. "We gave her the opportunity to interview the president for 59 minutes and she aired only 20 minutes." Walters, he protested, edited out "all the positive answers."
The blast against Walters came on a day when Syria faced mounting international pressure to halt its crackdown on protesters. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused the Syrian government of deliberately killing and torturing thousands of civilians during the anti government protests.
The confidential briefing, which was obtained by Turtle Bay, alleged that Syrian authorities have killed more than 5,000 civilians, military defectors, and security agents that have refused orders to kill civilians.
"The situation is intolerable," she said. "The nature and scale of abuses committed by Syrian forces since March indicate that crimes against humanity are likely to have been committed."
In response, Jaafari lashed out at Pillay, saying the high commissioner for human rights had violated "the honor of her office" by meddling in the internal affairs of a U.N. member state, and relying on accounts of military defectors. "Mrs. Pillay ... is not objective, she is not fair ... she has trespassed her mandate, she allowed herself to be misused."
The exchange capped a day of recriminations and finger pointing in the Security Council. Jaafari said his country was a victim of a "huge conspiracy" concocted by the United States, Europe's former colonial powers, Israel, and the armed Syrian opposition forces fighting the government.
Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin partly agreed, saying that the Western powers are seeking to topple Assad's government.
"We think this is very dangerous," Churkin said. "They make no secret of the fact that they want regime change." Churkin also accused his Western partners of trying to bully him into rejecting a proposal by China to have Pillay expand the briefing to cover human rights abuses in Palestinian territories. "I saw every trick in the book thrown at me short of trying to strangulate the president of the council," Churkin said.
U.S. and European diplomats denied that they tried to block a discussion of Palestinian rights, which they characterized as a cynical attempt by Syria's defenders to detract attention from Damascus's conduct -- which one U.N. diplomat characterized as "the most horrifying briefing that we've had in the Security Council over the last two years."
"We find it unconscionable that the Security Council has not spoken out on this issue in recent months given everything that has happened," said Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.S. deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. "We really need to see the Security Council on the right side of history here, to stand with the Syrian people."
Privately, council diplomats noted that China and Russia, which have traditionally resisted discussions of human rights in the Security Council, have never before asked for a briefing by the human rights chief on Palestine, or on any other human rights crisis.
"This is a complete red herring," said Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.
"This was a very transparent ploy by those countries that did not want to hear Ms. Pillay's briefing on Syria. There has never been a request for her to come and brief on Palestine before," he added. "Indeed, the newfound enthusiasm on the part of some of our colleagues who have traditionally opposed any briefing by the high commissioner for human rights in the Security Council seems now to have ended, and I would certainly anticipate that Ms. Pillay will be invited a number of times back to the Security Council to brief on human rights in a number of places across the world in the future."
While the heated diplomatic rhetoric in the Security Council probably served to keep the public conversation on Syria alive, it did little to break the diplomatic logjam in the council on a way forward.
While the U.N. Security Council in August adopted a non-binding statement condemning Syria's repression, it has not been able to apply further pressure on Syria. China and Russia vetoed a U.S.- and European-backed resolution that would have threatened possible sanctions against Syria.
The prospects for a breakthrough now rest in the hands of the Arab League, which has imposed its own set of sanctions on Syria, and which will be holding a series of meetings with European governments to determine if it will back a Security Council resolution on Syria -- a move that would raise the political costs of another veto. "We are in regular consultations with the Arab ambassadors here in New York, as are our capitals with Arab capitals in the region and in the light of those decisions that they take over the next few days we shall certainly consider when, and how, and in what terms to come back to the Security Council," said Lyall Grant.
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Micah Zenko, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations criticized the NATO-led military campaign against Libya's former leader on the grounds that it violated the U.N. Security Council's mandate authorizing the use of force for the narrow purpose of protecting civilians.
The West's overreach, he argued in an opinion piece in The National, has contributed to stalemate in the U.N. Security Council over Syria, where the Chinese and Russians cast a double veto to block a resolution which threatened to consider sanctions, but not military force, if Damascus didn't halt a bloody crackdown that has lead to the death of nearly 3,000 civilians.
"The endorsement of the Security Council proved essential to the legitimisation of the NATO-led intervention in Libya's civil war. However, several countries openly violated the resolutions, adopting a much more active role and presence in the conflict by arming the rebels, providing military training and placing forward air controllers on the ground to call in air support," Micah writes. "As a result of these blatant violations, the U.N. has been unwilling to endorse intervention in Syria to stop the government-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters. In June, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev delayed a Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, stating he would not support 'a dead ringer for Resolution 1973,' which he believed had been 'turned into a scrap of paper to cover up a pointless military operation.' On October 4 Russia and China vetoed a sanctions resolution."
It's certainly true that NATO military support for Libya's rebel movement, which has now become Libya's transitional government, has figured prominently in the debate in the U.N. Security Council. China, Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which supported the decision to use force in Libya, have all cited NATO's use of force to help topple the regime as a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of Resolution 1973, in defending their refusal, or at least reluctance, to impose harsh new measures against Syria. But was it decisive?
Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch took issue with Zenko's argument on Twitter, tweeting that it's "true that Russia, China, others upset over expanded NATO mission in Libya, but they would have vetoed Syria action anyway." Lynch added: "I'm not saying that Libya precedent didn't matter at all, but more as an excuse for veto than a reason."
For his part, Zenko tweeted: "Strategic interests matters, as does precedence. If US, Russia, or China misuses UNSC it's wrong. We should consistently say so." He added: "And I think it's wrong to imply that the misuse of 1970 + 1973 for regime change had no impact on double-veto."
Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor at Princeton University and the former director of policy planning for the State Department, tweeted that, over time, the precedent of using force to halt mass atrocities would prevail. "Libya precedent will ultimately box Russia & China in more than it will give them excuses for inaction," she wrote.
I tend to agree that the Libya precedent was not decisive in influencing China's and Russia's decisions to block the Syria resolution, and more likely reflected an assessment that Assad's regime would survive. I suspect the two countries, particularly China and Russia, would have been inclined to veto the Libya force measure, Resolution 1973, instead of abstaining, if it hadn't had the support of the region's key regional groups, the African Union and the Arab League.
In the case of Syria, the U.N. Security Council's lone Arab country, Lebanon, was not prepared to challenge its powerful neighbor, providing cover for a Russian and Chinese veto. If the West can once again muster regional support for their Middle East initiatives in the Security Council, which is far from certain, they may see a more agreeable Russian and Chinese response.
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Russia and China today cast a rare double veto to block a U.S. and European-backed draft resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown on protesters, exposing the first major rift in the U.N. Security Council over its response to the wave of popular uprisings that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
The draft garnered a paltry 9 votes in the 15-member council, the bare minimum required for adoption of a resolution, as Brazil, India, Lebanon, and South Africa expressed their unease with the Western press for sanctions by abstaining on the vote.
The Russian and Chinese actions marked the defeat of months of European-led diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions on Damascus for unleashing a violent response to the demonstrations. Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Al Jafaari, reacted to the veto with a smile, and later thanked the "voices of the wise" on the council who confronted what he characterized as the colonial and military aspirations of a bloc of Western powers that is "doomed to failure."
Speaking after the vote, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, and China's U.N. ambassador, Li Boadong, expressed concern that the resolution would serve to exacerbate tensions in Syria and could serve as a pretext for possible regime change.
Churkin blasted the Western initiative as reflecting a "philosophy of confrontation" with Syria that would undermine any efforts to pursue a political settlement between the government and the opposition.
The vote triggered an angry reaction from Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, who vowed that this "veto will not stop us" from continuing to press for the Bashar al-Assad government to end a crackdown that has killed nearly 3,000 people.
"The United States is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security," said Rice, expressing unusual emotion. "Several members have sought for weeks to weaken and strip bare any text that would have defended the lives of innocent civilians from Assad's brutality."
Rice said that the council's split provided a stark illustration of which countries supported the aspirations of pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria and the rest of the Arab world. "During this season of change, the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators," she said. "Let there be no doubt: this is not about military intervention. This is not about Libya. That is a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
The clash comes weeks after the U.N. Security Council reached agreement on a statement, generally considered less forceful than a resolution, condemning Syria's conduct.
The council's European members had initially pressed for a resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on Syria, and targeted President Assad and more than 20 of his closest associates with a series of sanctions, including a travel ban and a freeze on financial assets.
The watered-down draft resolution blocked by Russia and China today "strongly condemned the continued grave and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities." It accused the regime of carrying out "arbitrary executions," torture, and enforced disappearances to end the protests.
The resolution demanded that the Syrian government immediately "cease the use of force against civilians," release political prisoners and detained protesters, and grant a range of other "fundamental freedoms" to its people. Had the resolution passed, it would have stipulated that had Syria failed to comply with the demands, within 30 days the council would have met to consider "other options" against Syria, a veiled reference to sanctions.
But the compromise was not enough to thwart the Russian veto, according to diplomats.
It was the first time one of the council's five veto-wielding powers has cast a no vote since February, when the Obama administration blocked a Palestinian-backed draft resolution denouncing Israel's settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to the Middle East peace process. It was also the first time China and Russia have cast a joint veto since July 2008, when they both vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution condemning Zimbabwe's human rights record.
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France and Britain will press for the passage of a U.N. Security Council vote on a mild, but legally-binding, resolution condemning Syria for its bloody repression of anti-government protesters, and demanding Damascus show restraint and provide access to U.N. humanitarian aid workers, according to U.N. diplomats.
The decision sets the council's Western powers on possible collision course with China and especially Russia. Moscow has signaled it may be prepared to veto a Security Council resolution on Syria, diplomats say. The standoff is coming to a head as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on demonstrators entered its ninth week with little sign of an end to the violence. The Syrian uprising represents the greatest threat to the Assad dynasty's control over the country since it came to power in a 1963 military coup.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron will make one last effort at a G-8 Summit in Deauville, France, Thursday and Friday, to persuade Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not to veto the resolution, according to council diplomats. Diplomats are confident that China will not veto the resolution if Russia doesn't.
After weeks of behind the scenes lobbying, Britain and France say they are confident that they have secured the minimum nine votes required for passage of the resolution in the 15-nation council. They are hoping to increase that number. But they said they intend to press for a vote later this week even if Russia threatens to block the vote.
On Twitter, Britain's Foreign Minister William Hague wrote today that the "rising death toll in Syria is worrying and unacceptable." He said Britain "is calling for more international pressure on Syrian authorities, including at [the] UN."
France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said recently that the "threat of a Russian veto" looms over the council deliberations on Syria but that prospects for a majority of supporters for council action is improving.
The United States had been initially reluctant to support the European initiative on the grounds that a blocked resolution would strengthen the Syrian government's hand by showing the council is politically divided.
But American diplomats have assured their European counterparts that they will support the push for a resolution. Bosnia, Colombia, Gabon, Germany, Nigeria, and Portugal have also assured the Europeans they will vote in favor of the resolution.
The Security Council's Western powers have already encountered stiff resistance from China, Russia and Lebanon to criticizing Syria in the Security Council. Last month, the three countries helped block a French and British initiative to adopt a non-binding council statement condemning Syria's conduct.
Russia is concerned that once the council weighs in on the Syrian crisis it will be only a matter of time before the council's Western powers begin to demand tougher action, including sanctions and possibly even the use of force. Moscow has already expressed concern that the West exceeded its mandate to protect civilians in Libya by taking sides in the country's civil war. The United States and its coalition allies maintain that they are faithfully implementing their mandate to protection civilians. And none of the Western powers have threatened the use of force against Damascus.
Brazil, India, and South Africa have also voiced concern about a new resolution, though New Dehli has indicated to some colleagues that it would be prepared to support a modest resolution that criticizes Syria's conduct. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, appealed to South Africa to rally behind the resolution.
"South Africa has said behind closed doors in the Security Council that they would not support Security Council action on Syria because they feel NATO abused the mandate the council gave it on libya," said Philippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch's U.N. representative, who is visiting South Africa. "Wwhat we are teling them is do not punish Syrian civialins for what NATO is doing in Libya."
He also challenged the U.S. rationale for not pressing more aggressively for action on Syria. "The argument that a Russian veto would somehow expose the divisions of the Security Council cuts both ways," he said. "You could also argue that the complete silence is emboldening the Syrian regime."
As the Europeans sought to build greater support for the resolution the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a statement today saying that it was "very likely" that a Syrian facility bombed by Israeli war planes in 2007 was "very likely" a nuclear reactor.
U.N. diplomats said the Europeans were unlikely to immediately raise concerns about the development in the Security Council, saying they fear it might complicate ongoing efforts to secure adoption of its resolution condemning Syria for its bloody crackdown.
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The White House today announced it would impose unilateral sanctions against Syria, signaling its desire to ratchet up pressure on President Bashar al Assad to halt his crackdown on protesters.
The U.S. action drew rare praise from foreign policy conservatives, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, who said the move "should mark the end of the failed policy of engagement and accommodation with Damascus."
But at the United Nations, the American delegation has been hesitant to press for an equally hard-line approach, fearing an aggressive push to penalize Syria in the U.N. Security Council might provoke a Russian or Chinese veto.
In late April, Chinese, Russian, Lebanese and other diplomats effectively blocked an effort by the Europeans to push through a mild, non-binding, Security Council statement condemning Syria's violent crackdown on mostly unarmed protesters.
The United States is concerned that another failed push for Security Council action on Syria would give comfort to President Assad, exposing the deep international rift over the right approach to restraining Syria.
In the absence of an American push, Britain and France have taken the lead in seeking a tougher approach. In recent days, the two European powers have sounded out other Security Council members about the prospects for the adoption of a resolution that would condemn Syria and urge it to halt further violence.
Britain and France are confident that they can muster the minimum nine votes required to adopt a modest resolution that would condemn Syria, ask it to show restraint, and encourage political reform. Britain and France also believe it may be worth risking a Russian or Chinese veto, and exposing them as defenders of a brutal Middle East regime that is resistant to democratic change sweeping the region. "There is a real risk that the council, by failing to act, is sending the signal that what Assad is doing is within the bounds of international tolerance," said one council diplomat. "We need to change that."
The United Nations maintains that more than 850 people have been killed in Syria in recent months, most of them civilian targets of a bloody government crackdown. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has charged Assad with ignoring a recent call for restraint by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which condemned Syria's conduct
While the U.S. worries that forcing a losing vote may play to Assad's advantage, they are likely to support Britain and France if they decide to move ahead with a vote on a resolution, according to diplomats.
The deadlock over Syria contrasts starkly with the council's response to a Libyan crackdown on protesters in February. In a remarkable show of unity, the 15-nation council voted unanimously on February 26 to impose sanctions on President Moammar Qadaffi's regime, and authorize an investigation by the International Criminal Court prosecutor into allegations that the regime committed crimes against humanity. On Monday, the court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, requested arrest warrants for President Qaddafi, his son Saif, and his intelligence chief, Abdullah Senoussi.
But the unity has frayed since the council passed a subsequent resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians by a vote of only 10-0, with five abstentions. Since, then China, India, Russia, and other council members have accused the United States, Britain and France of exceeding the authority granted by the council to protect civilians by taking sides in a civil war.
The effort to squeeze Syria has also been complicated by the role of the council's lone Arab state Lebanon, which lead previous efforts at the United Nations to condemn Libya and to address allegations of government repression in Yemen. But Lebanon is unwilling to back any measures against Syria, which exerts enormous influence over Lebanese affairs. And there is no sign that other Arab governments will challenge Lebanon's approach.
The current dispute over Syria "is the hang over from Libya," one council diplomat told Turtle Bay. "China and Russia feel a bit betrayed because the coalition went further than what was in the resolution. It diminished the possibility of replicating the Libya model in Yemen and Syria," where Russia and China have blocked action.
"There is a negative vibe post-Libya in the council," the diplomat said. "you did this in Libya and now you're going to pay for it. It's a pity. There is this political game of power in the council while people are being hurt on the ground."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.