UN's failure to resolve Syrian crisis set to cloud assembly debate
UNITED NATIONS// The United Nations' failure to resolve the Syrian crisis will likely cloud the annual General Assembly debate that opens today in New York, as world leaders focus on issues that have not been rendered irrelevant by major power rivalry.
The UN Security Council could not unite on Syria as Russia and China vetoed three resolutions criticising Damascus, one of which threatened sanctions. This led UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to resign. His replacement, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, who briefed the Security Council on Syria's worsening civil war and country's growing food crisis, lowered expectations that he can succeed where Mr Annan failed.
Mr Brahimi told the 15-nation council that the Syrian government estimates there are 5,000 foreign fighters in the country and is increasingly portraying the conflict as a "foreign conspiracy," envoys at the closed meeting told Agence-France Presse. The disunity on Syria exposed a core weakness of the UN: the competing interests of 193-member nations that result in agreements often so compromised they appear toothless. In the Security Council it takes only one of the five permanent members with the power of veto to stop any agreement at all.
"The issues that the UN works together on are not ones of vital interest for the major powers," a western diplomat said in a background briefing. "People say on Syria the UN is irrelevant. But we are irrelevant on a lot of other issues too."
For instance, for years the UN has had virtually no impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, is expected on Thursday to seek a General Assembly vote to become a UN non-member state after the US presidential election on November 6, diplomats said.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who speaks a few hours later, is anticipated to focus on what he sees as the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who addresses the Assembly tomorrow, told reporters yesterday that Iran does not take seriously Israeli threats of attack, but is prepared to defend itself. He also said Israel has "no roots" in the history of the Middle East and would be "eliminated." Foreign ministers of the EU 3+3 negotiations, involving France, Germany, and the United Kingdom plus the United States, Russia and China on Iran's nuclear programme are tentatively scheduled to meet on Thursday afternoon.
Cooperation at the UN is found on issues with no major power competition, such as Somalia, where terrorists have again struck in recent days, Mali, facing a rebellion fuelled by loose stocks of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi's weapons and the dispute between North and South Sudan. Summit meetings will be held this week on those issues as well as on nuclear terrorism, HIV-Aids, sexual violence against women, the rule of international law, a global initiative on education, and a French-led meeting on the death penalty.
"But on the issues like Syria, no way," the western diplomat said. "At the same time, you can argue that if there is a political solution in Syria, and it's a big 'if' frankly, I think that you need a channel for negotiation and I don't see which other channel than the UN could be used."
When the Security Council failed on Syria it was moved to the General Assembly by the Assembly's then president, Nassir Abdulaziz Al Nasser of Qatar, which openly supports the Syrian rebels. Under Mr Nasser, the General Assembly passed three non-binding resolutions with large majorities condemning Damascus and calling on Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, to step down. In the Assembly, Russia and China's no votes have equal weight with the smallest nation. Nevertheless the bitter international divide on Syria spilt into the Assembly since it gave a platform to Syria's ambassador to attack Mr Nasser's government.
That level of bitterness over Syria could emerge again this week as world leaders take the Assembly podium. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, speaks on Friday and Syria's foreign minister, Walid Muallem, on October 1.
A foreign ministers' meeting in the Security Council tomorrow on the Arab Spring could also be controversial. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on Friday is chairing a meeting of the Friends of Syria, a 70-nation group supporting the Syrian rebels that has been harshly criticised by Russia.
Making his debut the UN is the Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who this month called for Mr Al Assad to step down.
The US president, Barack Obama, may well condemn the Syrian government too when he makes what amounts to a major foreign policy campaign speech today at the General Assembly, 42 days before the election. But Mr Obama has been criticised as weak on Syria by his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney who, by an apparent scheduling quirk, is speaking in the same hour across town at the Clinton Global Initiative meetings.
Updated: September 25, 2012 04:00 AM