New Zealand yesterday found itself at the centre of an international crisis yesterday but was powerless to do anything.
And as a consequence the Prime Minister may find himself also rendered impotent when he chairs the Security Council next month.
The crisis unfolded at the United Nations Security Council who were told by the UN’s Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, that the situation in Syria was now the greatest crime of our time.
“I’m angry, very angry,” he said.
“The situation in Syria has moved from the cynical to the sinful.”
He detailed a chilling chapter of civilian bombings, hospitals bombed, health workers killed, sieges denying essential supplies and most importantly the obstructions placed in the way of UN aid trucks by the Syrian authorities.
And he claimed health workers and rescue workers were being targeted.
He said Aleppo yesterday had been subject to “dozens” of bombing attacks causing hundreds of civilian casualties.
More and more of the attacks were “double tap” attacks where the aircraft or helicopter after its first run would sit around above the target and allow just enough time for the rescue workers to go in and then attack again.
He said the siege of Aleppo had been an apex of horror and getting relief there was now a race against time.
He welcomed a Russian offer for a 48 hour ceases fire, but he said all parties to the conflict must agree.
And he wanted the Council to take the lead.
“This Council cannot look the other way,” he said.
“It needs to act.”
New Zealand agreed.
Its Deputy Permanent Representative, Carolyn Schwalger, said the humanitarian situation would continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution.
New Zealand was leading the debate which followed O’Brien’s emotional presentation speaking for a Egypt and Spain who with New Zealand are called the “penholders” on Syrian humanitarian issues which simply means that they draft resolutions or other “products” emanating from the Council relating to the crisis.
They were not getting anywhere yesterday.
“We had hoped to agree on a press statement which captured the points I have just outlined, and we are disappointed and frustrated that we have not been able to,” said Ms Schwalger.
“ It is disappointing that we are not able to agree on a response to the horrific humanitarian situation throughout Syria and the looming humanitarian situation in Aleppo.
“We must do better as a Council.
“The innocent civilians of Syria deserve no less from us.”
O’Brien’s desperate pleas and Schwalger’s call for action were soon to be submerged by the power politics that is regularly played out around the Security Council table.
Britain and France showing untypical co-operation joined the call for action; then a procession of Security Council members; Uruguay, Spain, Angola and Japan supported them. Beyond congratulating Russia for its agreement to a 48-hour bombing halt to allow aid to reach Aleppo, all the speakers studiously avoided getting into the big power politics of Syria.
But one, Ukraine, knew exactly who was to blame.
Its representative talked about the “combined Syrian Russsian forces” and accused Russia of using incendiary weapons, of moving new types of weapons to bases in proximity to Syria and of launching cruise missile attacks on Syria from the Mediterranean.
He also questioned whether Russia was targeting terrorists or members of the moderate opposition.
“We look forward to the Russian side providing this Council with all necessary information in this respect,” he said.
That, however, was only the warmup act.
Then came the heavy artillery from Michele Sison, U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations.
“Across Syria, the Assad regime is drawing upon Russian assistance to escalate this conflict,” she said.
“Fronts that have been relatively quiet in recent months are once again being bombed by the regime
“The Assad regime has shown no hesitation whatsoever to employ the most gruesome tactics in the pursuit of military gains – from launching “starve and surrender” sieges, to shoving crudely-made barrel bombs from helicopters.
“This is the regime Russia is supporting with its own airstrikes and military advisers.
“The fighting is getting worse, and so are the humanitarian consequences.”
The spotlight then turned to Russia’s veteran representative, Vitaly Churkin, a one-time child movie star whose defence of Soviet actions over Chernobyl earned him the sobriquet “Vitaly Charmyourpantsoff” from the Washington Post.
He began by asking whether the United States had considered the humanitarian implications of its invasion of Iraq.
He warned that the 48 hours cease-fire that Russia was willing to agree to should not be used to replenish the resources of the opponents of the Assad regime.
“We firmly believe that humanitarian lulls should not be used by the insurgents to replenish their resources and regroup their forces like it used to be in the past.
“We hope that the opposition sponsors (he meant the Americans) will be able to make it (the opposition) more agreeable and committed to the terms of future agreements,” he said.
Russia’s argument is that the Assad regime is opposed by terrorists — particularly ISIL and Jabhat al Nusra.
“Radically altering the humanitarian situation in Syria is impossible unless we continue to fight the terrorists,” Churkin said.
It is this Russian caution that is the obstacle facing New Zealand and countries which want an immediate ceasefire and end to hostilities.
Syria was invited to attend the meeting (it is not a Security Council member) and its Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, immediately charged the “so-called air force of the international alliance” of itself was bombing civilian targets.
And he was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia and Turkey for their support of the “moderate” opposition.
He then produced a book by a controversial Australian left-wing academic, Tim Anderson, who was jailed after he was charged with murder after the 1978 Sydney Ananda Marga bombings. Anderson was subsequently released on appeal but used his time in jail to study for a degree in politics and has subsequently been a noted left-wing critic of the US.
The book, “The Dirty War on Syria”, from which Ja’afari read, alleges that the “big powers” had sought to hide their undermining of the Assad regime by using proxy armies.
Ja’afari said that any solution in Syria would have to come from political dialogue under Syrian leadership without any external interference.
“We re-iterate that the political path is parallel to the path of fighting terrorism,” he said.
And then he accused the prestigious French daily newspaper, Le Monde, of fabricating its extensive coverage of the war in Syria.
Le Monde has exposed the use of chemical weapons and kept up unceasing reports of atrocities and humanitarian abuses in the country.
But Ja’afari said it was, in fact, the former French Prime Minister (and Rainbow Warrior bombing personality) Laurent Fabius who had used the chemical weapons.
That did it.
Alexis Lamek, the deputy French Permanent Representative, demanded a right of reply.
He said he wasn’t going to rehearse “the derisory and grotesque” things that had just been said.
“I wasn’t expecting any miracles from him,” he said.
“But I would have liked to have heard him refer to the current humanitarian situation in Syria.”
And Ja’afari came back.
“What he describes as absurd applies fully to the policies of successive governments of France,” he said.
“France is hostile to my country and has been for decades now.
“We will never forget the colonial era.”
And that was it.
After two and half hours, the Council adjourned. It had agreed on nothing. Instead, it looked more like a theatrical performance playing out international tensions.
And that now presents a problem because the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided that for its last turn as Chair of the Security Council, New Zealand, would focus on Syria.
Plans are being made for the Prime Minister to chair a special Security Council meeting during the opening week of the General Assembly in September.
With today’s meeting unable to even agree to issue a press statement, the outlook for the Key meeting looks dismal at best.
But that raises other questions about the Security Council; about the ultimate limits which both military realities and the big powers impose on it.
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(The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided travel assistance to New York for POLITIK)bvv