The big powers seem to be in no mood to loosen their stranglehold on Syria
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | October 28, 2016
With the fighting intensifying in Syria’s Aleppo, parties to the conflict are aggressively pushing their agendas beyond the battlegrounds. The battle over the war-struck city has great symbolic significance for the big powers, particularly the US and Russia, apart from clear strategic benefits accruing from controlling the city.
Earlier in October, two UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions on Aleppo failed to be adopted amid heated debate on the content of the text. One of the resolutions initiated by France and Spain demanding an immediate halt to all aerial bombardments and military flights over the city of Aleppo was shot down by Russia, a P5 member. Another text initiated by Russia (which received an affirmative vote by China) that urged an immediate cessation of hostilities in the besieged Syrian city was rejected by France, the US and the UK, all permanent members of the UNSC.
"Today we are participating in one of the most bizarre scenes in the history of the UN Security Council. We will vote on the two draft Council resolutions, and we are all well aware that neither of them will be accepted," Russian ambassador to the UN in New York Vitaly Churkin said ahead of the voting on the resolutions.
However, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on October 21 that asked the independent Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Syria to conduct a comprehensive, independent special inquiry into the events in Aleppo, and identify all those responsible for alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law. An analysis of the statements made at the HRC during the tabling of this resolution accurately reflects clash of interests in the Syrian battlefields.
What the resolution says
The ‘Aleppo resolution’ at the HRC was initiated by British ambassador to the UN in Geneva Julian Braithwaite through a letter to the Council president on October 18 requesting for a special session of the UNHRC on the deteriorating human rights situation in Syria with special attention on the Aleppo situation.
The resolution demands that the Syrian “regime and its allies end immediately all aerial bombardments of and military flights over Aleppo city” and “urges” the immediate implementation of the cessation of hostilities. The adopted text also demands that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities and its supporters, “promptly allow rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained humanitarian access” for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and borders, “in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need through the most direct routes”.
It “emphasises” the need to ensure that all those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) or international human rights law are held accountable through “appropriate, fair and independent domestic or international criminal justice mechanisms”, “noting the important role that the International Criminal Court can play in this regard” and “underlines” that humanitarian access should be to the “full number of people” in need as identified by the UN and their implementing partners, with the “full spectrum” of humanitarian assistance being delivered. It “strongly condemns” violence committed by ISIS, Al-Nusra Front or other terrorist organisations; reiterates that the only sustainable political solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an “inclusive and Syrian-led political process”; and welcomes the UN Secretary-General’s decision to establish a panel of inquiry into the bombing of a humanitarian convoy at Urum al-Kubra (Big Orem), Syria, on September 19. (The SG appointed Lieutenant General (retd) Abhijit Guha to head the panel.)
The resolution was adopted by the Council with 24 member-states including France, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the UAE, and Qatar voting for the resolution. (The US is not a member of the HRC at the moment). Seven countries including China, Cuba and Russia voted against the resolution. Sixteen countries abstained from voting including India (following its previous voting patterns on the Syrian conflict), Philippines, South Africa, Bangladesh, Ecuador and Vietnam.
Syria, speaking as the concerned country, said that the UK was once again leading a number of states trying to revive its colonial glory – the group of states behind the resolution were not concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people, but were instead supporting terrorist organisations in Syria. Hussam Edin Aala, ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic to the UN, said there was no such thing as eastern or western Aleppo – there was only one city of Aleppo. Aleppo had become a platform for terrorist groups to launch indiscriminate attacks, which had led to the death of scores of civilians on a daily basis, Aala accused. The Syrian government was working on ridding some areas of armed groups, and safe passage had been provided for civilians and fighters to leave safely and with guarantees. Army units had retreated to positions which would allow fighters to leave through designated corridors, he said.
Theodore Allegra, US deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, said at the UNHRC: “Airstrikes by Russia and the Assad regime are the cause of this devastation, and they are the cause of this suffering. And let me emphasise, no pause can be a substitute for a genuine end to the violence and full access for humanitarian aid. So Russia and the regime owe the world much more than excuses. Why do they keep hitting hospitals and medical facilities, and why do they keep targeting children and women?”
The UK “strongly condemned” Syria, its military and its Russian backers, for the violence in Aleppo. “Russia, you are making the situation worse not solving it,” accused the UK’s parliamentary under secretary of state at the foreign and commonwealth office Tobias Ellwood at the HRC, ignoring the fact that the UK itself had blocked a resolution on cessation of hostilities in Syria at the UNSC. Russia is “spurring radicalisation” and the blocking of the UNSC resolution by Russia is not the leadership expected from a P5 nation, the UK said.
The Russians proposed at least four amendments to the draft resolution at the HRC, all of which were rejected by the initiators of the resolution – in this case, the largely western bloc of countries.
The first proposed amendment, L.2, called for a separation of terrorists from the so-called moderate opposition. The second amendment (L.3) would welcome steps to improve a humanitarian situation in Aleppo, in particular the holding of a humanitarian pause. The third proposed amendment, L.4, addressed the key issue of whether the international community would defend terrorists in Syria. L.5 referred to the continued foreign support to Al-Nusra, ISIS and other unlawful formations. The final amendment, L.6, would remove the “distorted interpretation” on the powers of the International Criminal Court. Russia requested that all amendments be taken one by one, and urged all Council members to support them.
India, presumably not wanting to side either with the western countries or Russia and to avoid getting dragged into the Syrian crisis, abstained from voting on the proposed amendments to the resolution. It was interesting to note that the smaller African countries who are current members of the HRC largely also abstained from voting. Predictably, China and Russia voted ‘yes’ to all the amendments and countries like the UK, Switzerland, Germany, France and Saudi Arabia rejected all the proposed Russian amendments.
Russia, speaking in a general comment after the amendments were rejected, said that the outcome of the voting left a muddied impression, but was also a moment of truth which indicated that the commitment of many states to peace in Syria was “simply empty words”. It turned out that the “Friends of Syria” were “friends of puppet masters and terrorists”, Russia accused. Russia wanted the entire draft resolution to be put to vote.
Saudi Arabia, speaking in a general comment during the tabling of the amendments, said that it believed that the aerial bombardments on Aleppo by Syria could only be seen as terror acts (never mind the inconvenient fact of the catastrophic aerial bombing by Saudi Arabia itself on hapless Yemeni civilians).
Interestingly, Pakistan, during the debate on the text, said that a “country-specific resolution doesn’t help” and demanded that the resolution be “balanced, impartial and implementable” countering Saudi Arabia’s claim of the resolution being “balanced” and moving against the US’s interests.
What the country statements indicate
The resolutions at the UNHRC as well as at the UNSC quickly came as the Syrian army’s tanks were seen making major gains and rolling into eastern Aleppo. It is important to note that there are no ISIS fighters in Aleppo – the city is divided into the western part controlled by the Syrian government and the eastern part controlled by the opposition fighters including from the Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda and a UN-recognised terrorist organisation. The Syrian government wants to regain control over its lost territory whereas the US sees the rebels in eastern Aleppo as the only hope for toppling the Assad regime, and thereby substantially limiting the influence of Iran and Russia on the region.
Russia flew in its air force to support the Syrian army about a year ago when the Assad regime was practically defeated by the rebel offensives. But Moscow’s intervention completely flipped the war game. The Syrian government quickly made strides in recapturing lost territories, thereby panicking the US and its allies including Israel. An influential Israeli think tank that also does contract work for NATO has said that the US is making a strategic mistake if it destroys ISIS, which will only end up strengthening the Moscow-Tehran nexus.
“The continuing existence of IS serves a strategic purpose,” Efraim Inbar, director of the think tank wrote in ‘The Destruction of Islamic State Is a Strategic Mistake’, a paper published on August 2. “The West should seek the further weakening of Islamic State, but not its destruction,” he added. “A weak IS is, counter-intuitively, preferable to a destroyed IS.”
The unpredictable US-Russia relations are at an all-time low and there has been a complete breakdown of trust between the two. Even during the height of Cold War, Washington had never asked for Russian officials to be tried for war crimes as secretary of state John Kerry is demanding now. Kerry, presumably, is also frustrated that US president Barack Obama has refused to put in more boots on the ground in Syria to counter the heavy deployment of Russian troops at the Hemeimeem military base in Syria. The American officials clearly feel outmaneuvered by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov as far as the Syrian crisis is concerned as hopes of toppling the Syrian president through the so-called rebels are fast dwindling. A possible victory of the Assad government and Russia would result in a considerable loss of face for the US in the Middle East and might also trigger the perception of the US as a fading world power. The stakes are high.
Russia has demanded that the US helps in separating the ‘moderate rebels’ from the terrorists so the battle at Aleppo would end.
“We have reached repeated agreements with the Americans that they will differentiate between Jabhat al-Nusra and its like and the so-called healthy opposition forces, including in Aleppo. They have agreed that this is necessary. What’s more, we have even agreed on concrete deadlines, but nothing is done from one month to the next,” Russian president Vladimir Putin said in an interview to French journalists on October 12.
The Americans accuse the Russians of bombarding civilians (there have been alleged use of prohibited weapons like cluster bombs and chemical weapons in Aleppo) as well as blocking humanitarian access to UN convoys. The Syrian government with the help of Russia has choked off food and medical supplies to the terrorist groups ensuring that they eventually succumb. The rebels have also done the same in some areas under their control.
A proposed medical evacuation from eastern Aleppo by the UN failed miserably even though the main parties to the conflict had agreed for the same. De Mistura blamed the failure on “too many conditionalities” put by either side that “complicated our lives”.
“We all failed at least up until now. There has not been a single organized medical evacuation, nor a single truck going in with supplies [to east Aleppo]. There simply was too little trust, there simply was too much fear, there was too many misunderstandings, there was too many confusing messages for this very complex and very dangerous operation that included people going both to government and opposition controlled territory to take place,” Jan Egeland, humanitarian advisor to De Mistura told reporters on October 27.
The UN has drawn up a plan to reach 17 besieged and eight hard-to-reach areas in November. Though the Syrian government has given initial approval for accessing 23 areas, it has refused access for humanitarian supplies to east Aleppo and Nashabiyeh, in eastern Ghouta where fierce fighting between government and opposition groups rages. Surgical equipment are still not allowed among the supplies for the 1,80,000 people that the UN has reached in the last couple of months.
Increasing numbers of civilians are being attacked, and appallingly enough, schools being targeted.
“A bitter war has become more bitter, a cruel war has become more ruthless,” Egeland said.
Thousands of civilians have been stuck in the crossfire and have fallen as “collateral” damage. Starvation as a weapon of war is a clear breach of the IHL whether done by the regime or the rebels. The Russians have accused that the ceasefire and the continuous supply of humanitarian aid is only a smoke screen that allows the terrorist formations to regroup. This theory has been rejected by the western powers who have demanded access to all “direct routes” (read: the Castello road that connects eastern Aleppo where many of the Al-Qaeda fighters are stationed) that have been blocked by the Syrian and Russian military. There is complete discrepancy even on the numbers of Al-Nusra fighters in the area. While Russia pegs the number at 3,000, the UN special envoy to Syria puts it at 900 and the UK and the US say that the numbers are a “few hundred”.
A cessation of hostilities declared on September 12 quickly vapourised into nothingness when four days later the Americans hit a Syrian military base “by mistake”. Subsequently, the bombings at Aleppo have been relentless, including by the Russian and Syrian governments.
The seemingly bizarre solution proposed by Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, on October 6 of “personally accompanying” Nusra fighters – who are recognised by the UN as terrorists – to leave Aleppo along with their weapons in exchange for safe passage may just be the only solution for breaking the logjam on the matter that has cost a devastatingly high number of civilian lives in Syria as a whole and Aleppo, in particular. As of now, Russia seems to have agreed to this solution.
De Mistura warned that if the fighting continued Aleppo would be completely destroyed in two and a half months. “Thousands of Syrian civilians, not terrorists, will be killed and thousands and thousands of them may try to become refugees in order to escape from this,” the Italian UN peace-broker said.
Earlier this month, Kerry had said that “Russia and the [Syrian] regime owe the world more than an explanation”. To tweak his statement a bit, the world owes the Syrian people much more than an explanation.
(The article appears in the November 1-15, 2016 issue)
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