UN Chief Lashes Out on the Syrian Crisis

moonUnited Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon prefers quiet diplomacy rather than confrontational public speeches. However, in a lengthy address he delivered on June 20th to the Asia Society regarding the worsening crisis in Syria that is spreading outside its borders to Iraq and beyond, he pulled no punches. A senior UN official, characterizing the intent of Ban Ki-moon’s speech to reporters, said that the time had come for the UN at its highest institutional levels to speak directly to the realities of the “horror” in Syria and demand all parties and countries with influence over those parties to do everything they can to stop it once and for all.

“I am here to express my anger and disappointment at the cold calculation that seems to be taking hold — that little can be done except to arm the parties and watch the conflict rage,” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. He recounted the litany of horrors in Syria, including over 150,000 deaths with several hundred people dying every day and nearly 3 million refugees:

“Prisons and makeshift detention facilities are swelling with men, women and even children. Deaths by summary executions and unspeakable torture are widespread every day. People are dying from hunger and from once-rare infectious diseases. Whole urban centres and some of humankind’s great architectural and cultural heritage lie in ruins. Destruction and death are everywhere.”

He minced no words in laying the blame for instigating the crisis squarely on the shoulders of the Syrian regime. “It did not have to be this way,” he said. “Appeals to President Assad from the people and from the region fell on deaf ears,” he added. “As popular demands escalated, the Government’s reaction turned even more ferocious. Civilians took up arms – only at that time. Syrians turned against each other. Regional powers became involved. Radical groups gained a foothold. Syria today is increasingly a failed state.”

While noting progress in disarming Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile and the provision of some limited humanitarian relief despite many obstacles, the Secretary General blamed divisions within Syria, the region and the international community, even within the United Nations itself, which, together with continued arms flows and the intervention of foreign forces, continue to fuel the conflict. He then outlined six points that he claimed “can chart a principled and integrated way forward to international action”:

1. End the violence. The Security Council should impose an arms embargo.

“If divisions in the Council continue to prevent such a step, I urge countries to do so individually whatever they can to impose this arms embargo,” Ban Ki-moon said. “Syria’s neighbours should enforce a firm prohibition on the use of their land borders and airspace for arms flows and smuggling into Syria.”

2. The international community must do its utmost to protect people – their human rights, their human dignity, their safety and security. Require an end to the sieges and immediate unfettered humanitarian access across frontlines and across national borders.

“4.7 million people are in hard-to-reach areas,” the Secretary General said. “The Government has actively removed medical supplies from aid convoys, and has collectively punished communities it regards as sympathetic to the opposition. Some rebel groups have taken similar [action].”

3. Resume “a serious political process for a new Syria,” building upon the Geneva Communique of June 30th, 2012 which had set out “a clear roadmap for a democratic political transition” by establishing a transitional governing body with full executive power.

This goal is quixotic at best. Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi both resigned in frustration as joint UN-Arab League special envoys after trying to facilitate negotiations. The most recent attempt at dialogue between the Assad regime and the opposition in Geneva broke down after failure to even agree on the order of agenda items for negotiation. While Ban Ki-moon intends to appoint another special envoy in the coming weeks and his office is currently reviewing a number of potential candidates for the position, he does not want a repeat of past failures. Thus, he is taking his time to figure out first exactly what the special envoy can realistically accomplish and the kind of mandate and support he or she will need from the international community, particularly the Security Council, to have a chance to succeed.

The Syrian presidential election which was held earlier this month, in which Assad was “re-elected” with 88.7% of the total votes cast, was a further blow to the political process, according to the Secretary General. “The election did not meet even minimal standards for credible voting, and has created a fact that runs counter to the Geneva communique,” Ban Ki-moon said. A senior UN official told reporters that the Assad regime’s insistence ongoing forward with this election was a large part of the reason for Lakhdar Brahimi’s frustration, leading him to finally resign.

To try and counter such a negative appraisal of the presidential election and legitimize the results, Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari presented to reporters a panel of five election “observers” at a press conference held at UN headquarters in New York on June 19th. The testimonials from the five far left panelists as to the fairness of the election bordered on a complete farce. None of the “observers” professed to be international law experts with experience in objectively monitoring elections for international election commissions or similar bodies. They were in Syria to help Assad, wittingly or unwittingly, essentially put lipstick on a pig.

One “observer”, for example, who was a co-founder of the movement to break Israel’s lawful blockade of Gaza and a co-founder of the Global March to Jerusalem, said that “I found the Syrian election to be an extraordinary affirmation of the will of the Syrian people.” Another “observer,” a National Coordinator with the anti-imperialist youth organization known as Fight Imperialism, Stand Together and an activist with the Occupy Wall Street movement, said that the Syrian presidential election was “truly an expression of the will of the people of Syria, unlike the fraudulent elections across the region and the West.”

The Assad regime chose to exploit such biased and unqualified pawns rather than risk inviting truly experienced international election observers to monitor the election, such as were sent recently to report on the Ukraine presidential elections.

As long as the Syrian regime continues making military progress on the ground and propagandizes the results of its so-called presidential election that keeps Assad in power, no progress will be made on reaching a political solution with the opposition despite Ban Ki-moon’s call for Russia, the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia to become actively involved in bringing about such a solution.

4. There must be accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all parties to the conflict.

Here the Secretary General was particularly critical of Russia and China, which had vetoed a proposed Security Council resolution that would have referred perpetrators of such crimes to the International Criminal Court. “I ask those who say ‘no’ to the ICC, but who say they support accountability in Syria, to come forward with credible alternatives,” he declared.

5. Finish the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria.

About 8 per cent of chemical weapons registered by the Syrian Government still need to be removed and destroyed completely. With the June 30th deadline for complete removal and destruction fast approaching and recent allegations about the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine against civilians, now is not the time to get complacent. “We are all keenly aware that almost all of the killing in Syria is being done with [conventional] weapons,” Ban Ki-moon said. “Still, it is essential to reinforce the global norm banishing the production and use of chemical weapons.”

6. Address the “extremist threat” that is becoming a regional problem.

In this context, Ban Ki-moon referred to the advances made recently by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. He called upon the international community to “eliminate funding and other support for organizations designated as terrorist groups by the Security Council, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”

Notably, Ban Ki-moon mentioned Hezbollah along with al Qaeda-affiliated groups as amongst the “radical armed groups” coming from outside of Syria whom have “increased the level of the violence and exacerbated sectarian violence.”

The Secretary General confirmed that he had spoken with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and urged him to reach out to all elements of society including the Sunnis and Kurds. However helpful that may be to help isolate ISIS from other Sunni factions, it will do little to stop the relentless spread of jihadism in the region. The jihadists are filling the vacuum left by President Obama’s failed leadership, including his reckless decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq at once, and his refusal to call out and confront the supremacist religiopolitical ideology of Islam that animates the jihadists for what it truly is.

Ban Ki-moon also called upon Russia and the United States not to get so bogged down in their differences over Ukraine that they fail to support him in his efforts to broker a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. “My message to President [Vladimir] Putin and all other European and American leaders has been that you are effectively binding my hands,” Ban Ki-moon warned. “The Ukrainian situation is very important. It should be addressed, but at the same time you should never lose sight of what is happening in Syria.”

In reality, however, geopolitical divisions over the fate of Syria preceded the situation in Ukraine and are unlikely to end no matter what eventually happens in Ukraine.

A senior UN official, who briefed reporters on Ban Ki-moon’s speech, remarked on the potential for a possible new “constellation” of Iran and the United States working together to deal with ISIS. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has hinted at the same idea. This would be a prescription for disaster. Iran’s theocratic leaders are the Shiite version of the Sunni jihadists, competing to impose their brand of the supremacist religiopolitical ideology of Islam on the region and beyond. They have no interest in fostering a stable, pluralistic and inclusive society in Syria or Iraq. Moreover, Iran would leverage such show of cooperation into pressing for more concessions in the nuclear enrichment negotiations now underway and lull the Obama administration into thinking it could then trust Iran to keep its word.

In sum, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke from his heart about the “unimaginable suffering that abounds today” in Syria and the surrounding region. He expressed in unmistakable terms his frustration that the United Nations was incapable of doing more to help resolve the crisis because of intractable ethnic and religious divisions within Syria and the destructive agendas, including the provision of arms and funding, by outside forces that refuse to use their influence on the parties to the conflict in a positive manner. “We have made a lot of pledges that we will never repeat this kind of situation like twenty years ago in Rwanda, and nineteen years ago in Srebrenica, there was genocide and we pledged ourselves that never again but still we are seeing the possibility of genocide in Syria,” he said.

In response to questions after his speech at the Asia Society, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tried to speak as the moral conscience of the world, arguing for global solutions to problems that transcend national borders and asserting that “there should be no such distinction between international and national.” He said that his message for young people is to “forget about your national boundaries, national passports. We are only one global family, very tightly, closely connected.”

One can understand Ban Ki-moon’s frustrations, but his prescription to forget about national boundaries is a naïve recipe for disaster. The jihadists say the same thing, only they want the “global family” to be united under the flag of a world-wide Islamic caliphate. Communists and Nazis had similar goals of a united world under their particular geopolitical and economic ideologies. Human nature does not allow for the success of global utopian solutions and the preservation of individual freedoms simultaneously.

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