Syria crisis: UN risks being marginalised

  • 4 September 2013
  • From the section US & Canada
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UN experts leave a hotel in Damascus, Syria, Friday, 30 August, 2013.
The UN weapons inspectors made several site visits from their base in Damascus

For a few days last week, the lenses of the international media were trained on a convoy of white four-wheel-drive vehicles driving through the bombed-out streets of Damascus with the letters "UN" emblazoned on the doors.

When members of the 20-strong chemical weapons inspections team made their first attempt to reach the suburbs of the Syrian capital where hundreds were killed in the early hours of 21 August, snipers opened fire on them.

Later, after replacing one of their vehicles, they returned to start collecting samples and interviewing witnesses.

With reporters based in Damascus tracking their every move, the UN was briefly at the very centre of the crisis.

Pressure on report

Now those biomedical and environmental samples are at laboratories in Europe undergoing tests that will determine whether chemical weapons were used. Ake Sellstrom, the Swedish scientist who heads up the team, wanted three to four weeks before reporting the results.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has pressed him to produce his findings within the shorter timeframe of two to three. That means they may not be made public until the week beginning 15 September - possibly even later.

By then, of course, America may well have launched military action against Syria, and not for the first time during this two-and-a-half year conflict the UN will find itself on the sidelines.

Tellingly, the focus over the past few days has been on the US Congress in Washington, rather than UN headquarters in New York.

Now it will shift to St Petersburg in Russia, where world leaders are gathering for the G20.

Certainly, the ongoing work of UN inspectors no longer figures highly in the thinking of the Obama administration. Nor, for that matter, does the Security Council, which has been deadlocked over the issue of Syria since day one.

Deadlock

In the immediate aftermath of the suspected chemical weapons attack, America pushed in the Security Council for a statement condemning the attack and calling for "full and unfettered" access for weapons inspectors - a move blocked by the Russians.

Only a few days later, however, the White House described the inspectors' work as "redundant," because US intelligence pointed already to the Assad regime's culpability.

Only a Security Council vote can back force under the UN charter

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a phone call to Mr Ban, even pressed for the team's immediate withdrawal from Damascus abruptly ending its two-week mission - a request the secretary general resisted.

For those seeking the truth of what happened, the mandate of the UN inspections team is frustratingly narrow. It will determine whether chemical weapons were used on 21 August but not who used them. Theirs was a technical inspection rather than a criminal investigation.

That said, the UN has promised an "evidence-based narrative" that will "get to the bottom of what happened", according to the secretary general's spokespeople.

Angela Kane, the UN official who negotiated the team's entry into Syria, has also spoken in private meetings of coming up with scientific findings "buttressed by a narrative".

Without directly pointing a finger of guilt, the report may include incriminating information, such as where shells were fired from or which delivery systems were used, that would imply blame. "It may be blindingly obvious," says a senior UN diplomat.

Western diplomats also think Mr Ban could have more latitude in attributing blame if he briefs the council on the findings, whenever that may be. The secretary general is not necessarily bound by the inspectors' limited mandate.

With the Security Council so divided over Syria - the blocking minority of Russia and China has three times vetoed resolutions calling for punitive measures against the Assad regime - Ban Ki-moon is treading a difficult path.

His stock line is that Syria requires a diplomatic solution, since there is no military one. Prior to flying to St Petersburg, he also warned that punitive action taken by the US could lead to more bloodshed.

Though he has stopped short of describing possible American action as "illegal", he has reiterated the letter of the UN charter, which allows for the use of force only in self-defence or where authorised by a vote in the Security Council.

Slipping timeline

Here again, the White House regards the UN as largely irrelevant.

The Obama administration has argued that the suspected chemical attacks violate what it calls "international norms" rather than international law, and has made the case for the legitimacy of a military response rather than its legality, a subtle but crucial distinction.

The UK government, which argued last week that military strikes were legal even outside the framework of the UN charter, differs from their French and American allies, whose interpretation of international law is more traditional and less expansive.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy for Syria, has become a marginal figure

Besides, the White House position is clear. It does not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be the ultimate arbiter of international law, and that if the Security Council does not act it will do so on its own.

UN officials bridle at the idea that they are on the periphery.

They point to 1,000-plus UN personnel who continue to be based in Syria, who work for an array of agencies including Unicef, the World Health Organization and the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Then there is the massive humanitarian relief effort being co-ordinated in neighbouring countries. The Zaatari camp in Jordan, the home now to more than 120,000 Syrians who have fled the civil war, is run by the UN's refugee agency.

Operationally, the UN is in high gear. Diplomatically, however, it is stalled.

When the provisional agenda for September's meetings of the Security Council was published on Wednesday, Syria was not even on it.

There is no point in scheduling a discussion, according to Gary Quinlan, the Australian ambassador who has just taken over the rotating presidency of the council, because it leads nowhere.

As for Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League special envoy for Syria, he is an increasingly marginal figure.

Mr Brahimi's efforts have been focused on convening a UN-backed peace conference in Geneva - "Geneva Two," as it has come to be known in diplomatic parlance. The aim is for a meeting of the warring sides sometime in October.

But that timeline has continually slipped, and Geneva Two is starting to have the feel of a diplomatic delusion: A mirage on the horizon that never actually materialises. The world waits to see whether something more concrete emerges.

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