Kofi Annan’s Mission Impossible in Syria

It is hard enough being an international diplomat, especially when your job was specifically created to pacify one of the most deadly internal conflicts in the world today.

Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, was tapped by the Security Council to do exactly that — shuttle between the Syrian government and the fractious armed opposition to implement some sort of a peace before thousands more civilians are killed in the line of fire.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, Annan wasted no time to hash out his own peace accord which has garnered the absolute support of the Security Council in a rare show of unanimity on the issue.

Despite Annan’s efforts, the longtime diplomat is beginning to experience just how difficult and hopeless his mission may be. While President Bashar al-Assad and his adversaries have all agreed to the accord’s points, hardly a day goes by when government officials, commentators and United Nations personnel express their extreme reservations about whether the agreement will actually do any good.

Annan’s plan has been buoyed by the support of all five permanent members of the Security Council, in addition to the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council. But with Syrian army units continuing to arrest protesters and hitting entire cities with mortar attacks, other nations are just about at the end of their rope in terms of supporting a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

This impatience is doubly so for the Sunni kingdoms in the Persian Gulf, a group of countries which view the downfall of Assad as a strategic opportunity just as much as a moral obligation. What is bad for Iran, so goes the logic, is good for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Annan is thus confronted with three problems simultaneously. Not only is he trying to broker a tentative ceasefire and a Syrian led political rapprochement process that may be dead upon arrival; he is attempting to do this fast enough for the Saudis and the Qataris to hold off on sending weapons to the rebels, yet slow enough to retain the support of Syria’s main backers on the Security Council, China and Russia.

A resolution of the conflict and a complete cessation of the violence will depend on the Syrians themselves. But for that process to begin (if it ever does), Annan will be forced to reassure a broad coalition of countries that, however different their interests in the conflict may be, Syrians will need time to negotiate an acceptable solution.

Rice Rules Out Syrian Intervention, Then Doesn’t

The American ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday was ambiguous about whether or not the United States would consider using military force to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from office.

Susan Rice, during an appearance on NBC News’ Morning Joe, said that the United States “don’t need to intensify the military situation” in Syria where anti-government militias now battle forces that are loyal to President Assad after protests against his regime were brutally suppressed for months.

“The best answer to this is not more arms,” she said. “It’s not airstrikes against a very complex and capable air defense system.”

Republican legislators, notably Senator John McCain, have urged airstrikes as Arab countries and NATO conducted in Libya last year to tilt the balance of the war on the ground in the rebels’ favor. “Americans should lead in this,” he argued on Wednesday.

Although Rice criticized China and Russia for blocking a Security Council resolution that would have called on Assad to step down, pointing out that it did not even include sanctions, she insisted that the Syrian president “inevitably” would go. “The question is how long will it take and under what circumstances.”

What we’re trying to do is mount as much pressure, diplomatically, politically, economically, as possible to accomplish that sooner rather than later. Peacefully, if possible.

Yet, she said, “Nobody’s talking about military orchestrated regime change.” What nonpeaceful means, if it proves impossible to remove Assad otherwise, are the United States then contemplating? the Russians must be wondering.

Rice acknowledged that Moscow sees a “pattern” developing of Western nations intervening in other countries under the guise of humanitarian concerns or what she herself deems a “responsibility to protect” on the part of the international community only to topple dictators whom, in Syria’s case, are Russian allies.

Just last week, in an article that was published in Moskovskiye Novosti, Russian leader Vladimir Putin decried the use of “soft power” and the abrogation of state sovereignty and warned that it would leave “a moral and legal void in the practice of international relations.”

Because humanitarian interventions are conducted on an almost arbitrary basis, moreover, wrote Putin, they risk aggravating a dangerous situation in a region where democracy versus dictatorship is hardly the only dividing line.

Rice seemed to share none of his concerns and spoke of the “Arab Spring” only in terms of democracy and freedom spreading across the Middle East.

As for the Russians, “they are determined to stand by their last best ally in the region,” she said. “They’re not prepared yet to read the writing on the wall.” Her words can hardly have changed their minds.

France Aims to Erect Humanitarian Corridors in Syria

France on Wednesday again raised the possibility to securing humanitarian corridors in Syria to alleviate civilian suffering in the wartorn Middle Eastern country.

Paris suggested to create a safe passage for relief organizations in November of last year to allow food and medicine to reach civilians who are caught up in the nearly yearlong struggle between anti-government militias and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

“The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously proposed, to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres, should be discussed at the Security Council,” Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, said in a radio interview.

China and Russia wary

China and Russia, two veto-wielding Security Council members, have twice blocked attempts by the United Nations to intervene in Syria’s civil war.

The Russian foreign minister, when asked about the French plan, reiterated his government’s insistence that international action should not “help legitimize” regime change in Damascus.

Corridors

The French would have humanitarian corridors link Syrian population centers to the borders of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey or to a zone on the Mediterranean coast that is protected by “observers.”

Juppé ruled out an armed intervention but conceded that a buffer zone may need to be defended with force.

Mixed record

The United Nations previously erected humanitarian corridors in Angola to enable the passage of aid and nongovernmental personnel there in 1993.

It also aimed to protect a “safe area” in Srebrenica, Bosnia, during the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1995, but the Dutch peacekeepers there could not prevent a massacre of more than 8,000 civilians who were supposed to be protected in the enclave.

Turkey’s role

The Turks have allowed Syrians to cross their southern border to flee the violence despite calls from Damascus to stem the refugee tide.

The Turkish foreign minister said last month that his government was “ready to do everything for [the] Syrian people,” although he stopped short of endorsing plans for a buffer zone.

Misled

France last year spearheaded efforts in the United Nations to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya after demonstrations against the regime there were also brutally suppressed. China and Russia believe that they were misled on the Security Council resolution that authorized Arab states and NATO to protect Libya’s civilians because the coalition that intervened effectively became the rebels’ air force and helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

China, Russia Block Security Council Action Against Syria

China and Russia on Saturday blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have called on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to cede power to a transitional government. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations accused Arab and Western powers of undermining a diplomatic solution by calling for regime change in the Middle Eastern country.

Ahead of the vote, Russia said the resolution wasn’t “hopeless” but needed to avoid “taking sides in a civil war.” Its deputy foreign minister warned last week that, “Pushing this resolution is a path to civil war.”

The Chinese representative insisted that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria should be fully respected.” Imposing an international solution would only “further complicate the situation,” he said. He blamed other members for pushing the resolution although there clearly wasn’t a consensus. Read more “China, Russia Block Security Council Action Against Syria”

UN Recast Limits to Growth As “Planetary Boundaries”

A United Nations panel of heads of state and environmental ministers on Monday warned that the world can no longer afford to ignore the ecological impact of growth and “must define what scientists refer to as planetary boundaries” beyond which human activity could wreck the planet.

The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said, “We need to chart a new, more sustainable course for the future, one that strengthens equality and economic growth while protecting our planet.”

A report that was released by the group drafted fifty specific policy proposals. Among them, a recommendation that environmental and social costs be somehow factored into how the world measures economic activity and a revised measure of wealth that goes beyond the “narrow” calculus of gross domestic product.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Exactly forty years ago this year, the Club of Rome, a group of notable academics and industrialists, predicted in a study titled The Limits to Growth that population growth, industrialization and resource depletion would ultimately inhibit the global economy’s ability to expand.

The Limits to Growth echoed the predictions of Thomas Robert Malthus who, as early as the eighteenth century, before the Industrial Revolution changed the world forever, advocated population controls to prevent people from reproducing at an “unsustainable” rate.

Even if the Western world has seen only growth since, Malthusianism never died. There was Thomas Friedman last year, writing in The New York Times that the planet was on the verge of crossing a red line on growth, climate, resources and population “all at once.”

We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.

Friedman proposed to move away from “consumer driven growth” toward a model that is “happiness driven,” based on people “working less and owning less.”

See where this is going? When supply appears to stall, the natural instinct of liberals is to equalize and ration. Just as Malthus couldn’t envision the world ever breaking out the “trap” he had set, today’s environmentalists cannot imagine that man will ever survive on anything but existing resources.

The supposed finiteness of supply conveniently serves their larger purpose which, as President Barack Obama so neatly put it, is to “spread the wealth around.” If there’s less to go around, they argue, we should all suffer equally. Or, as Margaret Thatcher said, they “would rather the poor were poorer, provided the rich were less rich.”

We have been warned for decades that industry and overconsumption will wreck the planet by nearly the same people who believe that demand drives growth and economies should be flooded with cheap money if there’s a contraction yet here we are, despite the recent downturn, in an age of abundance.

There is only so many times you can cry wolf before people start to wonder whether disaster truly looms on the horizon.

Time and again, human enterprise, ingenuity and technology propel us toward higher standards of living. In those parts of the world that are economically freest, people enjoy more and more diverse food than ever. There is an ample supply of natural resources to fuel our cars and power our factories for generations to come, if only governments would allow companies to drill and extract.

There is a mistaken belief that because resources are finite, so is growth. This confuses the engine of economic expansion for the mere presence of resources which would be perfectly useless if not man learned to make use of them. He, specifically his mind, is what makes progress.

If there is less coal, we’ll drill for more oil. If there is less oil, we will switch to using more natural gas. If there is less gas, we will certaintly find ways to make wind and solar profitable. (Hint: subsidies aren’t helping! Actually, they discourage innovators from improving the technology.)

The fact that we’ll add more people to the world population than ever before over the next decades is not to say we should grow at a slower pace and consume and produce and work less. There is nothing romantic or “happy” about living in hunger and poverty, Mr Friedman. We should work harder instead! The Earth may be limited but the human capacity to create and improve is not.

Russia Warns Syria Resolution “Path to Civil War”

A senior Russian diplomat on Tuesday warned that if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were forced to resign, his country would surely descent into chaos.

Encouraged by the Arab League, which withdrew its monitors from Syria last week as the regime continued to deploy force against the opposition, the United Nations Security Council considered a resolution that urged President Assad to step down on Tuesday.

Ahead of the vote, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said, “Pushing this resolution is a path to civil war.” The country has threatened to use its veto power to prevent the resolution from being enacted.

Demonstrations in Syria have been subject to brutal crackdowns for almost a year. Thousands are estimated to have died in confrontations between protesters and Assad’s security forces since the revolt started in March 2011. Part of the opposition has since banded together in militias while a government in waiting sits in Istanbul.

Despite international pressure, Damascus has shown no sign of relenting.

The Arab League suspended Syria as a member in November. Qatar has called for an armed intervention. Turkey, which maintained amicable ties with the Ba’athist regime before the uprising, said it had “lost confidence” in President Assad’s willingness to reform. The Turkish foreign minister just last week said that his country was “ready to do everything for the Syrian people” although he stopped short of endorsing calls for military action. Even Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the West, has severed ties with Damascus.

Besides Iran, a stalwart Syrian ally, only Russia has continued to stand by Assad’s side. The two countries have been close since the Cold War.

Syria is still a top buyer of Russian military hardware. In 2010, it received 6 percent of Russian arms sales. Contracts for future deliveries are worth up to $4 billion. Syria has also hosted a Russian naval base in the city of Tartus on the Mediterranean since 1971. The facilities are partly derelict. Of three floating docks, one is known to be operational although renovations started in 2009.

In the strongest show of support for the Assad regime yet, the Kremlin anchored its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the flagship of the Russian navy, off the port of Tartus earlier this month.

Russia is also invested in Syrian natural gas extraction. The Stroitransgaz company is building a gas processing plant in central Syria and involved in technical support for the expansion of the Arab Gas Pipeline which exports Egyptian gas to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The energy company Tatneft plans to spend $12 million on drilling exploratory wells near the Iraqi border and is engaged in contracts with the Syrian national oil company.

The largest oil producer and second largest oil exporter in the world, Russia hardly depends on Middle Eastern states like Syria. Its loyalty to Assad and his government may be informed more by a concern of strengthening the Sunni axis in the region, led by Saudi Arabia and allied to the West, as well as the fear that successful rebellion in Syria could embolden Islamic insurgents in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

In supporting Assad, Moscow may seek to dissuade dissident groups in its outer provinces and former satellite states from imitating the “Arab Spring” and crush Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s hopes of establishing an Eurasian Union under Russian leadership before it has probably taken off.

The deep warm-water port of Tartus is also a strategic asset that is coveted by Russia. It may not be as relevant to Russia’s ability to project power as during Soviet times, especially as the country’s emphasis shifts to the Arctic region, but a presumably Islamist regime, in league with the Turks, would surely expel the Russians from their one naval base that isn’t either frozen during part of the year or inaccessible, as in the Black Sea, if NATO powers erected a blockade of the Dardanelles.

Palestinian UNESCO Bid Challenges US Engagement

It has been over a month since Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas stepped on to a podium in front of the General Assembly, held up his pledging document amid an echoing applause and submitted his request for full recognition of statehood to the United Nations.

Back in September, the statehood campaign was a bombshell. Recognition would not change daily life all that much for millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers would still control 40 percent of West Bank land and Israeli settlement construction would most likely proceed in villages claimed by Palestinians for a future state. But despite the practicalities, the measure, even if it is doomed to failed, could still be a win for the Palestinian Authority in the world of public opinion.

Abbas’ statehood document is now stuck in the Security Council. It still has to schedule a vote on the request. But the president’s diplomatic team is not sitting on their hands and waiting for a decision. Instead, Palestine has submitted similar requests to smaller UN associations. And from the looks of one overwhelming vote, it appears that the Palestinian strategy is working for the time being.

By a lopsided 107-14 tally, delegates of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization voted in favor of admitting Ramallah into its ranks on Monday.

For the United States and Israel, UNESCO’s decision could be seen from a mile away. Yet the mere fact that the international body approved the Palestinian referendum by such a wide margin must have gotten under their skin.

From a purely tactical point of view, Palestine’s admission to the UN’s cultural organization hardly affects Washington’s foreign policy goals in any meaningful way. On the contrary, an additional member to the UNESCO ranks only confirms how vital global educational and cultural exchanges between people are — objectives that the United States holds dear.

The problem, at least from a diplomatic perspective, is that Ramallah’s newfound home will add to the tension that the Obama Administration is already feeling with its partners in the UN on a number of issues, including Syria and the war in Afghanistan. Thanks to a law passed in the early 1990s mandating that the United States cut funding for any UN agency that admits the Palestinian Authority as a member state, President Barack Obama is faced with the uncomfortable decision of making good on that law. $80 million that would have otherwise gone to UNESCO this year has been put on hold, with tens of millions more in jeopardy if the original legislation is not amended.

The big worry now is that once the Palestinians officially join the UNESCO club, President Abbas will apply the same strategy to other UN agencies. The International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for monitoring nuclear compliance around the world, could be the next stop for Abbas and his team. Or maybe the World Food Programme, the institution tirelessly trying to ameliorate the famine in the Horn of Africa and churning out food deliveries for millions of hungry families. If they do, the Americans run the risk of being compelled to disengage from these multilateral organization.

The State Department has already warned that there could be “considerable potential damage if this move is replicated in other UN organizations.” Especially as tension between Iran and Israel is mounting, Congress may not be prepared to change the law however to allow the United States to remain an active contributor to the international community.

Rousseff’s Foreign Policy Follows in Lula’s Footsteps

Dilma Rousseff Barack Obama
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff welcomes American president Barack Obama and his family in Brasília, March 19 (White House/Pete Souza)

When President Dilma Rousseff addressed the United Nations General Assembly this month, she confirmed what many analysts of Brazilian foreign policy had expected since she assumed office in January of this year — that she would soldier on in the pragmatic fashion of her predecessor to see to it that Brazil is recognized as a world power.

Although recent actions on the part of her government, including UN votes regarding Iran and Libya, may suggest that Rousseff is more assertive abroad than Lula da Silva was, in fact, Brazil’s foreign policy is likely to remain the same.

Like Lula, the extremely popular Workers’ Party president who propelled Rousseff to national prominence, the incumbent Brazilian leader stresses the need for the international community to change the way in which it runs its affairs.

As the world becomes more globalized the need for international organizations will continue to grow. This is the most effective and secure way for governments to manage their relationships, express their concerns and manifest their interests. Lula recognized this and so does Rousseff. The problem is that the institutional structure does not reflect today’s reality. In the same way as governments have demonstrated to be unable to keep in pace with the developments in the free market, changes in states’ power relations have outpaced the evolution of international institutions.

Rousseff’s personal experience of fighting Brazil’s right-wing dictatorship in the 1980s could impact some of her policy choices. The best example may be her harsh criticism of Brazil’s abstentions on human rights resolutions at the UN during Lula’s tenure. Rousseff could emerge as a champion of human rights, at least whenever there is an opportunity for her to assert herself on the international stage without undermining Brazil’s number one foreign policy objective which is to be recognized as a legitimate global power as soon as possible.

It is critical to understand the meaning of “legitimate” and “as soon as possible” in this context. The former implies that Brazil will have to have the support of several countries which recognize its leadership. The latter implies that, in looking for this support, the Itamaraty will not be particularly demanding regarding the quality of the governments it has relationships with.

In a world that is ruled by norms and organizations that were based on Western principles, the way to gain attractiveness vis-à-vis a great part of the international community is to be different. Brazil’s legitimacy will come from strengthening its relationships with as many nations as possible, notwithstanding what the United States think of them. This way, Brazil will be able to legitimately behave like a world power.

Problem is, the rules that were made by Western nations have become the rules of the game. Many countries may criticize them and demand a change but even China and Russia recognize the benefit of having them to structure the interactions between states. Hence Brazil demands an expansion, not the disappearance of the Security Council.

Last year’s controversial nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran and Turkey should be understood in this light. By providing a parallel international forum to solve the Iranian nuclear issue, Brazil sent the unmistakable message that it still aspires to be an agenda setter in the world. Rousseff’s decisions to oppose the bombing of Libya and support the creation of a Palestinian state were inspired by a similar motive.

Along with Brazil, India and South Africa, two other major emerging economies and large, multiethnic democracies, voted the same way. China and Russia, the more conservative parts of the “BRICS,” are already part of the international system. Nations like Brazil, which demand not only economic but political reform as well, could increasingly shape the world’s decisionmaking process.

A Ray of Hope for the Palestinians

This Friday, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas will submit a formal request at the United Nations for recognition of statehood along the lines of the pre-1967 borders.

The Palestinians lost faith in direct negotiations with Israel a long time ago. After President Barack Obama’s one year time frame for a peace settlement collapsed this time last year, Abbas appears to have come to the realization that the only way for his people to edge closer to statehood is by drawing the entire international community into the process. Call it a unilateral move or a callous breach of the Oslo Accords — arguments that the Israelis have been peddling for the past couple of months — what the UN drive cannot be called is a strategic mistake. If anything, it will isolate the Israelis and the United States with most of the world endorsing Abbas’ proposal.

After hinting in press conferences and briefings that the United States would veto a Palestinian request for statehood at the Security Council, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland finally stated unequivocally last week that Washington’s power in the council will be used to block the effort. “It should not come as a shock to anyone that the United States oppose a move in New York by the Palestinians to try to establish a state that can only be achieved through negotiations,” she said. “So, yes, if something comes to a vote in the UN Security Council, the United States will veto.” Read more “A Ray of Hope for the Palestinians”

The United Nations’ Obsession with Israel

If the Palestinians manage to attain recognition of statehood at the General Assembly of the United Nations next week, Israel is unlikely to care. It regards the institution as biased toward Israel, with good reason.

The Palestinian bid for statehood defies international pressure and is expected to meet an American veto in the Security Council. In any event, the move could exacerbate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians which most recently erupted in May when the military interim government in Egypt unilaterally lifted its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Protests and disturbances immediately broke out along the border which led to the deaths of five Egyptian soldiers at the hands of Israeli border guards.

Israel has enforced a blockade of Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the territory. Missiles are routinely launched from there against nearby Israeli cities and settlements.

The embargo was enforced after the December 2008 Israeli military campaign in Gaza where the militant Islamist group Hamas is in government. Israel and Western nations regard Hamas as a terrorist organization.

In the wake of the Gaza campaign, the United Nations ordered an investigation into possible human rights abuses during the skirmish. A panel led by the South African judge Richard Goldstone spent almost a year amassing information before accusing Israel of war crimes.

Goldstone retracted that opinion in April of this year when he wrote in The Washington Post that Israel had not “intentionally” targeted civilians “as a matter of policy.” That was after much of the world had denounced Israel for doing just that, partly based on the study that bore his name.

The Goldstone Report was hardly exceptional among investigations sponsored by the United Nations however. It is common practice for Israel to be denounced for “offenses” at the UN that pass without comment elsewhere.

The Human Rights Council in particular is obsessed with the Jewish state. After its predecessor institution, the Human Rights Commission, was disbanded in 2006 because of its preoccupation with Israel, the council devoted nearly 60 percent of its country-specific resolutions to condemning Israel during its first two years in existence.

After President Barack Obama brought the United States back onto the council, American diplomats managed to bring the number down during the last two years — to 40 percent. Meanwhile, Libya was scheduled to be commended by the council for its human rights improvements before Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime began gunning down peaceful protesters in the streets.

Virtually all nations have criticized Israel’s settlement activity in what is generally recognized as Palestinian territory yet similar settler movements elsewhere are never declared “illegal.”

Morocco and Turkey have both encouraged resettlement to the Western Sahara and Cyprus respectively to bolster nationalist claims there. Before it accepted East Timor’s independence in 2001, Indonesia similarly facilitated migration to the former Portuguese colony. In none of these cases have the United Nations ever proposed prosecution. Rather they allowed outside settlers to participate in referendums about the future of these territories, acknowledging their claims implicitly.

What makes Israel so exceptional? Nothing — except that it’s a Jewish state surrounded by Arab people that are overwhelmingly hostile to it. The UN’s democratic nature enables Arab and other nations to misuse the institution for their own political gain, adding legitimacy to their ongoing vilification of the state of Israel which, in turn, compels the United States to deploy their veto power and force some balance in how the country is treated in the international community.