Any US military action taken in response to suspected chemical weapons attacks in Syria would need to be approved by the UN Security Council, international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said on Wednesday.
“I think international law is clear on this. International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council. That is what international law says,” he told a press conference in Geneva.
“I must say that I do know that President Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger-happy. What they will decide I don’t know. But certainly international law is very clear.”
The United States and its allies built their case Wednesday for likely military action against the Syrian government in the war-torn country over an alleged chemical attack on August 21, despite stern warnings from Russia.
The ramp-up of military language came as UN inspectors began a second day of investigating the sites of the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people.
The ground for a Western military intervention in Syria was being set out by US Vice President Joe Biden, who for the first time said last week’s attack, thought to have killed hundreds, could only have been perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“[US President Barack Obama] believes and I believe that those who use chemical weapons against defenseless men, women and children should and must be held accountable,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the American military was already prepared to act if Obama gave the order –though White House aides said no final decision had been taken.
“We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever option the president wishes to take,” Hagel told the BBC. “We are ready to go, like that.”
The Syrian government strongly denies the claims leveled against it.
“Many facts tend to prove the innocence of the Syrian government, which has been subject to false accusations,” Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari told state media.
Jaafari said such facts also showed that “armed groups have used chemical weapons in order to bring about military intervention and aggression against Syria.”
Jaafari said such facts also showed that “armed groups have used chemical weapons in order to bring about military intervention and aggression against Syria.”
The West and Turkey “have enabled terrorist groups to create a laboratory for chemical weapons on Turkish territory with materials provided by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar… and to bring these chemical weapons to Syria for use,” he alleged.
A team of United Nations inspectors reached rebel-held territory outside Damascus on Wednesday, opposition activists said.
“They have reached the town of Maleiha and are now with the rebel escorts, soon they will head to towns where the strikes happened and begin their inspections,” activist Salam Mohammed said, speaking to Reuters via Skype.
The team of arms experts boarded a convoy of six vehicles in Damascus, the photographer said. It was unclear which site they were intending to visit.
This came a day after the experts suspended their mission for one day over safety concerns.
The inspectors braved sniper fire when they began their mission on Monday but still managed to visit two field hospitals in Moadamiyet al-Sham, southwest of Damascus, and collect evidence of last week’s suspected chemical attacks.
But they were unable carry out a planned visit to a second site in Eastern Ghouta, on the Syrian capital’s northeastern outskirts, on Tuesday because their safety could not be guaranteed.
Britain joined the US in saying government forces were behind the strikes, and Prime Minister David Cameron said London and its allies had to consider whether targeted military action was required to “deter and degrade the future use of chemical weapons.”
French President Francois Hollande said his country was “ready to punish” those behind the chemical attacks and that he would meet the Syrian opposition’s leader on Thursday.
Moscow, Assad’s most powerful ally, again warned a military solution would destabilize the Middle East, and Syria’s envoy to the UN blamed rebels in the country for launching the attack to provoke international intervention.
Speaking to UN-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “a military solution will lead only to a further destabilization of the situation in the country and the region,” his ministry said.
Senior officials in Washington told NBC news that possible strikes against targets in Syria could take place as early as Thursday.
Analysts expect to see cruise missiles launched from US and allied submarines, ships and possibly planes, firing into Syria from outside its waters and airspace.
A military campaign in Syria is expected to be limited in scope, likely to last only several days and to target military sites but not the chemical weapons stocks themselves, sources in Washington said.
An official in Syria’s main opposition National Coalition said the group expects a Western military intervention and it has been consulted over targets, which included airports, military bases and arms depots.
“It’s a question of days and not weeks,” said Ahmad Ramadan, adding that “there have been meetings between the Coalition, the (rebel) Free Syrian Army and allied countries.”
During a news conference on Tuesday, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Damascus would defend itself.
“We have two options: either to surrender, or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal,” he said. “The second choice is the best. We will defend ourselves.”
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)
Russia’s foreign minister has censured the US Department of State officials for their ‘peculiar comment’ on the results of a trilateral meeting over Syria in Geneva.
The trilateral meeting on Wednesday was held with the participation of UN-Arab League Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi and representatives from Russia and the United States. It served as a preparatory move to pave the way for the Geneva 2 talks on the issue of Syria.
During a Thursday press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “I have heard that officials from the US Department of State have given a very peculiar comment on the results of yesterday’s meeting in Geneva between Russia, US, and UN.”
“In particular, the State Department representative stated that Russia, the United States and the United Nations agree that the goal of the new conference in Geneva must be the forming of a new transitional government in Syria. This really matches with what was written down last year,” he said.
“But, if the reports that I have received are true, the State Department went on to add that this should be a transitional government to which the current authorities in Damascus would hand over all their powers. If this was really said by the State Department, this is a very strong distortion of what the talks were about,” the Russian foreign minister added.
He made the remarks in response to an earlier statement by Jennifer Psaki, a spokesperson for the US Department of State, where she reportedly claimed that participants in the preparatory meeting had agreed that the forthcoming talks on Syria should focus on the formation of a transitional government, to which the current administration should give up all powers.
Lavrov further reiterated that Moscow would continue to push for Iran’s participation in the upcoming Geneva meeting despite opposition from some Western states.
Meanwhile, Brahimi has expressed hope that the Geneva conference would convene in July, as the preparatory meeting failed to set a date.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, saying he lacks neutrality.
The statement said Damascus would stop cooperating with Brahimi unless he severs his ties with the Arab League. “Brahimi’s report (on April 19) to the United Nations Security Council was marked by (a tone of) interference in Syria’s internal affairs and a lack of the neutrality required by his mission as international mediator,” the statement said.
Brahimi said at a closed-door session of the Security Council that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not have the right to run for president in the upcoming election scheduled for next year.
“Syria has cooperated and will cooperate with Brahimi only as UN envoy, because the Arab League is complicit in the conspiracy against Syria,” the statement read.
“If Brahimi wants his mission to succeed, we expect him to start working to stop the violence and terrorism along with the parties concerned, and to expose the roles played by France, Britain, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which finance and arm Al-Nusra Front’s terrorists,” it added.
The UN-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has unveiled a new initiative to end the country’s months-long crisis.
Brahimi said on Sunday that the new plan could find support from world powers, including key Syria ally, Russia.
The veteran Algerian diplomat, however, did not elaborate fully on his proposal but said he had discussed it with Russia and Syria, and that it was a political solution based on the Geneva Declaration adopted in June.
“I have discussed this plan with Russia and Syria…. I think this proposal could be adopted by the international community,” Brahimi told reporters in Cairo after meeting with Arab League chief Nabil El-Araby.
Under the Geneva plan, opposing sides would cease fighting and a transitional body would be formed until elections are held.
Brahimi also said that the situation in Syria “is very bad and getting worse by the day,” and that without a negotiated solution the country will turn into “hell.”
Brahimi’s previous attempt to secure a temporary truce in Syria for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha in October failed after militants refused to cease their fire.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011. Many people, including large numbers of army and security personnel, have been killed in the turmoil.
A recent UN report has revealed that militants from 29 countries have so far infiltrated into Syria to fight against the Damascus government, most of whom are extremist Salafists.
The Syrian government has repeatedly said that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and that a very large number of the militants operating in the country are foreign nationals.
- Brahimi’s shuttle diplomacy rekindles hopes of solution to Syrian crisis (news.xinhuanet.com)
- Brahimi urges end to Syria violence (standard.co.uk)
Syria’s UN envoy said Thursday his government is not seeking any escalation of violence with Turkey and wants to maintain good neighborly relations, Today’s Zaman reported.
Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said the government hasn’t apologized for the shelling from Syria that killed five Turkish civilians because it is waiting for the outcome of an investigation on the source of the firing.
He read reporters a letter he delivered to the deeply divided UN Security Council that sent Syria’s “deepest condolences” to the families of the victims “and to the friendly and brotherly people of Turkey.”
It urged Turkey and its other neighbors to “act wisely, rationally and responsibly” and to prevent cross-border infiltration of “terrorists and insurgents” and the smuggling of arms.
The Security Council has so far failed to respond to Wednesday’s deadly attack from Syria.
The US and its Western allies are seeking a strong statement condemning the attack on Turkey but Russia, Syria’s most important ally, is opposed and is seeking much weaker language that the West says is unacceptable, UN diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks have been private.
US Ambassador Susan Rice said the original draft, proposed by Azerbaijan and backed by the Turkish government, “adequately reflected the key points that need to be made.” But diplomats said many council members objected to Russia’s proposed amendments watering down the text. So council experts were meeting to see if they could bridge the differences.
“This sort of cross-border military activity is very destabilizing and must be stopped,” Rice said. “While I think it’s too early to say what will be the result of those negotiations, we think it’s very important that the council speak clearly and swiftly to condemn this shelling.”
The border violence has added a dangerous new dimension to Syria’s civil war, dragging Syria’s neighbors deeper into a conflict that activists say has already killed 30,000 people since an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March 2011.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm Thursday at the escalating border tensions and warned that the risks of regional conflict and the threat to international peace is increasing, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The UN chief called on all parties “to abandon the use of violence, exercise maximum restraint and exert all efforts to move toward a political solution,” he said.
Nesirky said Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy, has been in contact with Turkish and Syrian officials “in order to encourage an easing of tensions.”
Syria’s Ja’afari said the “Syrian government is keenly interested in maintaining good neighborly relations with Turkey.”
“The Syrian government is not seeking any escalation with any of its neighbors, including Turkey,” he stressed.
But he said Syria wants to explain to the Turkish people that their government’s policies supporting the opposition “are wrong and have been wrong since the beginning of the crisis.”
Ja’afari said Turkey responded to the incident by launching artillery shells into Syria starting at 7 p.m. local time Wednesday and stopping at midnight. Turkish troops then resumed artillery shelling Thursday morning until 7 a.m., injuring two Syrian army officers, he said.
“Our forces practiced self-restraint and did not respond to this Turkish artillery shelling,” Ja’afari said.
The Syrian ambassador said he delivered another letter to the Security Council seeking its condemnation for four suicide bombings in the country’s largest city and commercial capital, Aleppo, which killed scores of innocent civilians and took place about the same time Wednesday as the cross-border shelling.
But he said the council once again has been unable to condemn “these suicide terrorist attacks.”
Ja’afari urged the Turkish government to show “the same kind of sympathy” to the hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians killed in the suicide bombings as the Syrian government showed to the Turkish victims.
CNN’s Nicole Dow featured Hillary in an interview on “Iran’s Soft Power Messaging” last week in connection with the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran, see here. Hillary also appeared on Al Jazeera over the weekend to talk about the new United Nations/Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and the prospects for progress toward resolving the conflict there (click on video above to view). Her two interviews bring together a number of important points about Iranian foreign policy and the requirements for a political settlement in Syria.
Twenty years ago, Harvard University’s Joseph Nye famously defined soft power as the ability to get others to “want what you want,” which he contrasted with the ability to compel others via “hard” military and economic assets. Hillary’s CNN interview explores what we have called the Islamic Republic’s “soft power offensive” in the context of the geopolitical and sectarian (Shi’a-Sunni) rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In the interview, Hillary notes that the rise of Tehran’s regional influence over the last decade has little to do with hard power. (As CNN’s Nicole Dow documents, “the numbers would certainly seem to bear this out. Last year, Saudi Arabia reportedly purchased as much as six times as much military equipment from the United States as Iran’s entire official defense budget.”) Rather, as Hillary points out, Iran’s rise is fundamentally about soft power. “We always think of Iran as a military dictatorship, but the Iranian message is clear: they want free and fair elections” in countries like Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iraq. “The Iranian message and belief is—if a country has free and fair elections, it will pursue independent policies that are in that country’s national interest. The Iranian belief is that if they pursue independent policies, they will inevitably be unenthusiastic about pursuing U.S. or Western policies.”
Hillary argues that Tehran can apply this approach even in Syria. Saeed Jalili, the secretary-general of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council, has made clear that “Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way.” But, as Hillary points out, “The two big points of the Iranian push” [on how to deal with the Syrian situation] were for there to be a ceasefire in Syria for three months at the end of Ramadan, and that there should be free and fair elections.”
Iranian policymakers are willing to roll the dice on elections in Syria because, first of all, they judge (correctly) that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to retain the support of at least half of Syrian society. Thus, it is not at all clear that he would lose an election. But Hillary underscores that, even if Assad were to leave office as part of a democratic transition, “a free and fairly elected successor to Assad would not be interested in strategic cooperation with the U.S. and would not be interested in aligning itself with Israel. That would be completely against the views and histories of the people.”
On the other side of the Middle East’s geopolitical and sectarian divide, Saudi Arabia is pursuing a very different strategy, in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The Saudi strategy emphasizes the funding and training of fundamentalist Sunni groups ideologically aligned with Al-Qa’ida—groups that, in contrast to mainstream Sunni Islamists “who are not interested in killing other Muslims,” take a strongly anti-Shi’a stance. This is, of course, the strategy that Saudi Arabia followed when it joined with the United States to fund largely Pashtun cadres among the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—and then fueled the rise of the Taliban during the 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal.
In Hillary’s assessment, “The Saudis cannot call for a ceasefire or for free and fair elections because the Saudis haven’t had free and fair elections in their own country. It doesn’t sound genuine, so they can’t do it, and they don’t want to do it. No precedent has been set to have everyone else doing it except them.” More fundamentally, though, “the Saudis aren’t interested in an outcome in Syria that leads to a government that carries out the interests of the people of Syria. What the Saudis are interested in is a head of state who will be on their side. And their side is against Iran and its influence in the region. This is a big albatross that Saudi Arabia has on its neck.”
Hillary elaborates on the point: The Saudis want to convince others in the region that “the Iranians don’t stand for Muslim causes, beliefs, independence or nationalism. The Saudis want others in the region to see the Iranians as Shiite, Persian, non-Arab, non-Sunni, and that what the Iranians are doing has nothing to do with democracy or freedom, but rather promoting a narrow sectarian vision… the Saudi message is that the Shiites are infiltrating Arab affairs to undermine the Sunni community and Sunni states. They see the Shiites as heretical, non-believing, non-Arab Persians. Some Sunnis believe that”—and some Saudis try to play on that “with a tremendous amount of money and weapons.”
But polls and other objective indicators suggest that regional publics are not buying the Saudi message. As Hillary concludes, “That’s where the conflict is today. It’s a battle today between this message that Iran has to promote of freedom,” in the sense of real independence, “and the Saudis that are really trying to fight that message.”
In Hillary’s reading, dealing with the contrast between the Iranian and Saudi approaches to Syria will be crucial to Lakhdar Brahimi’s chances of success in stabilizing the conflict there. On Al Jazeera, she highlights “two critical points” that Brahimi has made since taking over from former Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the U.N./Arab League Syria envoy.
First, Brahimi “has come out clearly against foreign military intervention. That is critically important because that could prevent the escalation of the civil war in Syria, and it could even start to dial back some of the armed support for opposition fighters.” Second, Hillary highlights Brahimi’s “refusal to simply parrot the White House talking point that Assad has to go and that Assad has lost all legitimacy. That is really a ridiculous point that is not going to lead to a negotiated outcome, and he has stood up courageously and refused to parrot it.”
Recalling her own experience working with Brahimi on post-9/11 Afghanistan, Hillary notes that his “track record” in the various civil wars and conflicts where he has been a mediator—Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti—is to focus on “power sharing. He focuses on getting together all of the critical players inside a country that need to be part of a solution. That’s power sharing. That’s not saying who goes and who leaves. That’s putting everybody into the same pot and having them work together. And then it’s critically important for him to work with the outside players.”
When challenged with an assertion that neither the Assad government nor the opposition is willing to talk, Hillary pushes back by observing that, just as the Islamic Republic supports a political solution in Syria, President Assad has been willing to talk with opponents since virtually the beginning of unrest back in March 2011. (So just who is it that it really blocking movement toward a possible political solution?) Furthermore, she underscores that it is largely the external Syrian opposition that has demanded Assad’s ouster up front; the internal opposition has not insisted on that.
In this context, she points out, Brahimi’s track record suggests that he will “focus on the players that are in Syria… He doesn’t actually have much time or patience for expatriates who sit in cafes in London or Paris. He doesn’t really think they’re players. He focuses on people who are in country.”
That is certainly a very different approach to post-conflict stabilization than that pursued by the United States in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and, now—in collaboration with Saudi Arabia—in Syria.
- Syria says envoy can only succeed if rebels lose outside support (dailystar.com.lb)