United Nations Ignores Al-Qaeda Link to Syrian Rebels

The U.S. rapidly entangles itself in an unsavory proxy war.

A day after Kofi Annan, the Joint Special Envoy for the UN and the League of Arab States for the Syrian Crisis, announced his decision to resign in frustration over the failure of the United Nations Security Council to pass a strong resolution that would enforce compliance with his six-point Syrian peace plan, Arab League members led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar went to the UN General Assembly for a symbolic vote on a resolution strongly condemning the Assad regime. The resolution said nothing about al Qaeda and other Islamist jihadists who are hijacking the armed opposition and committing their own atrocities.

The final draft resolution passed on August 3rd, with 133 in favor, 31 abstaining and 12 against. In order to secure more votes in favor of the resolution, the measure's Arab League sponsors had to water down its text.  They agreed to remove a demand that President Assad resign. They also agreed to water down a call for other nations to impose sanctions on Syria. Without such dilution, the resolution would most likely have failed to gain a supporting majority.

Nevertheless, the final resolution text retained its focus of condemnation on the Syrian regime. It called out the “the increasing use by the Syrian authorities of heavy weapons, including indiscriminate shelling from tanks and helicopters, in population centres and the failure to withdraw its troops and the heavy weapons to their barracks…”

After reciting a long litany of "widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities and pro-government militias," the resolution made only a glancing reference to possible "human rights abuses by armed opposition groups." While condemning all violence, "irrespective of where it comes from," the resolution said that it was up to the Syrian regime to take the "first step in the cessation of violence."

The General Assembly resolution also took a swipe at the Security Council - and, by implication, the two permanent members Russia and China that had used their veto power in that chamber to block a Security Council resolution calling for sanctions. The General Assembly resolution deplored "the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions."

Unlike the Security Council, which under the UN Charter has enforcement powers to back up its resolutions, General Assembly resolutions are unenforceable. The General Assembly resolution does not change a thing on the ground in Syria. Kofi Annan's peace plan remains dead in the water. The UN observer mission in Syria has been unable to conduct any significant monitoring, has shrunk to about half of its original size and may well be removed altogether when its mandate runs out later this month. The violence continues unabated.  Arms are being sent by Russia and Iran to the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are arming the opposition.  Atrocities committed by the Assad regime are being increasingly mirrored by atrocities committed by the armed opposition, particularly as al Qaeda and other outside jihadist groups continue to increase their presence in Syria.

Nevertheless, the spin machine was on full display after the General Assembly vote as if some kind of game-changing event had taken place.

The Saudi Arabian UN Ambassador Abdallah Y. al-Mouallimi hailed the vote as a major diplomatic victory against the Assad regime. He said that he hopes "the message will be heard in Moscow and Bejing," in an obvious reference to the double veto of the last Security Council resolution by Russia and China. His hopes were quickly dashed when Russia and China supported Syria in voting against the resolution, along with the likes of Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea. While Russia and China could not veto the General Assembly resolution, as they had in the Security Council, there was no sign of any softening of their position. Indeed, Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin charged that the resolution was very one-sided, evidencing "blatant support for the armed opposition."

France, as usual, took the lead for the West in expressing vehement public support for anything that could be done to humiliate and help bring down the Assad regime.

French UN Ambassador Gérard Araud, who is also the president of the Security Council this month, praised the "colossal majority" that voted in favor of the General Assembly resolution. He said:

I think it is obvious that there is a wide consensus in the international community to say to the government of Syria: 'You have to cease the indiscriminate violence against the civilians, the violations of the Human Rights, the violations of the Humanitarian law when you shell civilian neighbourhoods and you have to enter into a political dialogue.'

British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said his country was pleased that "an overwhelming majority" of the General Assembly had voted for "a tough resolution on Syria which condemns the brutality, the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Syrian regime."

When I asked Ambassador Grant what he would say to critics of the resolution who complained that it was not balanced, and specifically that it did not take note of the role of al Qaeda and other Islamist jihadist groups as part of the armed opposition, he declared that the resolution was not meant to be balanced.  He painted a benign picture of the opposition, insisting that it "had to take up arms to defend itself and to defend its civilian neighbourhoods."

Not to be outdone, however, Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari accused the resolution's main sponsors, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, of being hypocritical "despotic oligarchies." The Syrian ambassador said of the Gulf countries providing arms to the opposition, “You cannot be a fireman and arsonist at the same time.”

"The draft resolution will have no impact whatsoever. It is a piece of theater," he added.

Ambassador Ja'afari is defending his government's indefensible actions, but he is right about the General Assembly resolution.  It is a meaningless gesture that does nothing to address Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's warning in remarks to the General Assembly before the vote that the "conflict in Syria is a test of everything this Organization stands for.  I do not want today’s United Nations to fail that test.”

The fact is that the United Nations can do no more with respect to the civil war engulfing Syria than the League of Nations was able to do regarding the Spanish Civil War during the 1930s. They are both proxy wars, with regional and international players arming one side or the other. In the case of Syria, there are at least four inter-related layers of geo-political-religious elements at work beyond the fighting among the Syrians themselves.

First, there is the religious and political battle being played out between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran is eager to maintain its sphere of influence in Syria through its alliance with Assad (who is affiliated with a Shite-minority sect known as the Alawites ruling Syria). Saudi Arabia and Qatar aim to roll back Iran's ambitions for hegemony in the region and are supporting the Sunni majority in Syria in their revolt against Assad and the Alawites. Hence, Iran is beefing up Assad's regime with arms and the support of its Revolutionary Guard.  Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding and providing arms for the opposition.

Second, al Qaeda is using the chaos in Syria to establish another Islamic jihadist beachhead.  As the New York Times recently reported, "Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are doing their best to hijack the Syrian revolution...The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda."

Third, Turkey, under the Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is serving as a transit point for the flow of arms to the opposition, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs.  Erdoğan is evidently trying to revive Turkey's Ottoman caliphate heritage by offering a seemingly "moderate" alternative to al Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups in leading the regional Sunni battle against the increasingly isolated Assad regime.

Fourth, there is the revival of U.S.-Russian Cold War-like rivalries. President Obama's policy of trying to push a re-set button in the relationship between the two countries has backfired.  As evidenced by its intransigence at the United Nations, Russia is protecting the Assad regime to thwart the West and its NATO ally Turkey in their efforts to extend their reach through regime change in a region where Russia believes it has vital strategic interests.

Where does all this leave the Obama administration in its attempt to forge a coherent foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria? Once again, it is taking its cue from France, the United Kingdom, Turkey and the Arab League, with little regard for the larger strategic picture.

Just a few days ago, it was reported that President Obama had signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to get rid of Assad.  Apparently, the United States has been collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies. All of this is being done without any real idea as to whom we are supporting. In fact, our money and equipment could well end up in the hands of our sworn enemy, al Qaeda.  And Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, whom the Obama administration appears to be counting on to channel the opposition in a more "moderate" direction and to counter Iran's growing influence in the region, has proven to be an unreliable ally. Most notably, Erdoğan has tilted in a decidedly anti-Israel, pro-Iran direction.

Hopefully, after the protracted deadlock at the Security Council, the Obama administration is starting to come to grips with the futility of relying on the United Nations to confer some sort of international legitimacy on its foreign policies. We'll have to wait and see. However, the administration still has to learn how to pursue the right policies in the first place to protect our vital strategic interests. Whether Assad stays or goes is less relevant to us than making sure that his stockpiled chemical weapons do not get into the hands of al Qaeda or other Islamist jihadists and that al Qaeda does not end up with a base in the heart of the Middle East.

Sometimes it makes sense to stay on the sidelines in a civil war and not risk the unintended consequences of actions that will cause more harm than good.This advice holds whether such actions are blessed by the United Nations or not.

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