In the latest episode of rampant violence resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians in Syria, a car bomb killed more than fifty people and wounded two hundred in Damascus on February 21st. The tally included students at a nearby secondary school. The bombing took place close to the Russian Embassy compound, where significant damage was reported, and to the ruling Baath Party offices in the central Mazraa district of the Syrian capital. It is highly likely that the al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah, which has taken credit for other bombings in the Damascus area this month, was involved in the Mazraa car bombing, although it did not immediately claim responsibility for this attack. Two other car bombings also occurred in Damascus on the same day, causing additional deaths and injuries.
The main umbrella opposition group seeking to overthrow Syrian President Assad tried to distance itself from the car bombings, but its leader Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib has rejected the idea that there are terrorist elements that are part of the armed opposition. “The logic under which we consider one of the parts that fights against the Assad regime is a terrorist organization is a logic one must reconsider,” he said in criticizing the Obama administration’s decision to designate al-Nusrah as an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization. Moreover, at least twenty-nine different Syrian rebel groups, including fighting “brigades” and civilian committees, have reportedly pledged their allegiance to al-Nusrah.
Syria’s official news agency said that the Foreign Ministry sent letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, urging the Security Council to “adopt a firm stance which proves its commitment to combating terrorism regardless of its timing or place.”
Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks, without attributing blame specifically to either the Syrian government or the opposition. When the members of the Security Council tried to reach a consensus on a statement of their own, however, they failed.
The Russian delegation – whose embassy was damaged as a result of the Mazraa car bombing – proposed a draft statement that would have condemned “this heinous act of terrorism” and extended “condolences to the relatives of the victims.” It was similar to the press statement that the Security Council had issued with regard to the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya last September 11th.
Here is the non-controversial text that the Russians proposed, which was published on line by Inner City Press:
The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the terrorist attack that occurred in downtown Damascus, Syria on 21 February, 2013, in close proximity to diplomatic missions, causing scores of deaths and injuries. They expressed their deep sympathy and sincere condolences to the victims of these heinous acts and to their families, and to the people of Syria.
The members of the Security Council reaffirmed that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.
The members of the Security Council reiterated their determination to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations.
The members of the Security Council reminded States that they must ensure that measures taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law.
According to the UN ambassadors from two members of the Security Council whom I spoke with, the effort to reach a consensus is “dead” because of an “impasse” between the United States and Russia. While they would not provide any details on the reasons for the impasse, it appears that the Obama administration’s insistence on adding a paragraph specifically condemning the Syrian government was the main sticking point.
Russia went public with its own press release criticizing the U.S. position:
Unfortunately, such an indispensable reaction by the Security Council to this terrorist attack has been once again blocked by the US delegation linking it with other questions.
We consider unacceptable this search for justifications for terrorist actions. It is obvious that by doing so the US delegation encourages those who have been repeatedly targeting American interests, including US diplomatic missions.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was even more blunt. “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,” Lavrov said. “Russia sees in the American position an application of double standards and a dangerous approach in terms of the Americans moving away from the main principle of condemning terrorism in all its forms.”
U.S. Mission spokesperson Erin Pelton countered that while the United States agreed with the Russian draft statement as far as it went, it needed to also address the Syrian government’s attacks against the Syrian people in order for the U.S. to go along. “Unfortunately, Russia refused to engage on a credible text,” Pelton said.
The Obama administration has handled this matter clumsily, to say the least. It shortsightedly torpedoed an opportunity for the Security Council to declare with a unified voice that acts of terrorism indiscriminately killing innocent civilians threaten international peace and security, no matter what the motivation or source may be, and that they have no justification under any circumstances.
The Mazraa car bombing had all the markings of an al Qaeda-style attack. The Islamist jihadist attack on our consulate in Libya was also a terrorist act by an al Qaeda-affiliated organization. In that case, Russia signed on to a Security Council press statement condemning the September 11th Libyan attack as a “heinous” act, which contained the following language:
The members of the Security Council condemned in the strongest terms the attack on the United States of America’s diplomatic mission and personnel in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 September, which resulted in the deaths of four American diplomatic personnel, including the Ambassador, and injuries to diplomatic personnel and civilians. They expressed their deep sympathy and sincere condolences to the victims of this heinous act and to their families… The members of the Security Council reaffirmed that such acts are unjustifiable regardless of their motivations, whenever and by whomsoever committed.
The Russians wanted a similarly focused Security Council statement condemning the Damascus car bombings, which resulted in the deaths of civilians and damage to Russia’s diplomatic facilities. On its face, the language proposed by Russia did not take sides in the Syrian civil war. It said that “any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed.” It referred to “all forms of terrorism,” which could be read as applying to state as well as non-state forms of terrorism. It also reminded states that they must comply with international law in combating terrorism. The Russians objected to additional verbiage proposed by the Obama administration condemning the Assad regime’s use of heavy weapons, which the Russians believed could be exploited to justify whatever means the anti-Assad forces used to depose him.
The Obama administration should have backed off in this case. Allowing the original Russian text, modeled on the Security Council press statement that had condemned the Benghazi attack, to go forward would have at least placed something on the record by the Security Council, which is better than nothing at all.
Last month, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, warned the Security Council that Syria “is breaking up before everyone’s eyes. Only the international community can help and first (and) foremost the Security Council.”
After the latest impasse, this time courtesy of the Obama administration, the Security Council has once again demonstrated its inability to do anything to help.
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