Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Damascus-on-the-Hudson

This year’s UN General Assembly was dominated by the crisis in Syria. Will the major players finally accept that a political solution, not a military one, is necessary, asksHussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The UN headquarters in New York City is situated on the Hudson River. The view from inside the august building is breathtaking, and when the General Assembly of the United Nations is not in ordinary or emergency session you can enjoy the view as well as the calm all around.

With the opening of the 71st session of the ordinary General Assembly of the United Nations, on 13 September, and the beginning of the General Debate, from 20 September to 26 September, one topic has captured the attention of the world leaders and country delegations: Syria.

One week before leaders from across the world started converging on the Big Apple, the United States and Russia announced in Geneva an agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria that would enter into force at sunset 12 September. The basic idea behind the agreement, as announced US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, was a truce for 48 hours, renewable for another 48 hours. And if the cessation of hostilities would be respected for seven days, effective 12 September, then the Americans and the Russians would set up a Joint Implementation Centre to combat both the “Islamic State” group, and Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. (Incidentally, Al-Nusra decided to change its name to the “Levant Conquest Front”.)

Egypt lent its support for the American-Russian agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, in his remarks before the General Assembly this month, said Egypt calls for the immediate resumption of political talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. In fact, the Geneva agreement calls for the delivery of humanitarian relief to besieged zones in Aleppo and in other parts of Syria, as designated by the United Nations, and the resumption of political talks to reach a final accord on a political transition in Syria. The United States, Russia and Egypt, and other member countries in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), have emphasised that there would never be a military solution in Syria, and have urged all interested parties to work towards a political solution.

Unfortunately, hopes for the success of the Geneva Agreement were dashed before the General Debate ended 26 September. The explanation of this failure is not difficult to come by. Secretary Kerry, commenting on a meeting of ISSG 22 September in New York, said “spoilers went to work,” without elaborating on who the spoilers are. Are they militias? Are they state-sponsored armed and extremist groups? Or regional powers and some Arab countries pursuing contradictory objectives of hegemony in the Middle East and the Gulf? Or all of them? I guess he meant all of these.

The Financial Times, in its weekly edition Saturday and Sunday (24-25 September), wrote that, “Mr Kerry has found himself pushing a diplomatic process to end the war that has lost all credibility both on the ground in Syria and in Washington.” But there is a glimmer of hope to salvage the American-Russian Geneva Agreement on the cessation of hostilities.

In a joint statement on Syria by the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and the high representative of the European Union, 24 September, the assembled reaffirmed calls made within ISSG for the co-chairs — namely, Russia and the United States — to “continue their diplomatic consultations”. And they also urged the Security Council to take urgent further steps to address the brutality of the conflict and, particularly, the assault on Aleppo. Before that meeting, Secretary Kerry said that, “What is happening in Aleppo today is unacceptable,” and that “Russia needs to set an example, not a precedent — an unacceptable precedent… for the entire world.”

Two days earlier, Mr Kerry pointed out that for Russia, “this is a moment of truth, it is a moment of truth for the [Bashar] Al-Assad regime and for the opposition. And it is a moment of truth for everybody, all of us, who are determined to try to end this war… and to defeat the terrorist groups Nusra and Daesh (Islamic State group).”

I could not agree more.

Mr Kerry explained the American position vis-à-vis the present situation in Syria by stressing that the objectives and processes laid out in Geneva are the right ones, which include:

—Renewal of the cessation of hostilities;

— The isolation of Al-Nusra and Daesh;

— The beginning of a Syrian-led negotiating track that can provide a pathway out of the conflict and make possible the restoration of a united and peaceful Syria.

He went on to say that, “We can’t be the only ones trying to hold the door open. Russia and the regime must do their part, or this will have no chance. The question now is whether there remains any real chance of moving forward, because it is clear we cannot continue on the same path any longer.”

And in case Russia is serious, according to the US secretary of state, then the United States, “will work with the opposition to reciprocate and to pull back from this cycle of escalation, because the opposition has a responsibility to observe the cessation of hostilities if the government does, and to disassociate from Al-Nusra.”

And that’s because both the Syrian government and the opposition have “an obligation to comply with UN Security Council mandates that international humanitarian law be observed.”

There was an emergency Security Council meeting on Sunday, 25 September, called for by the United States, Great Britain and France to discuss the latest developments in Syria, particularly the situation in Aleppo. The session saw strong language on the part of the American and Russian delegations, each trying to accuse the other of reneging on its commitments and responsibilities as set out in the Geneva Agreement on the cessation of hostilities. Ambassador Samantha Power, the permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations, said in her remarks that, “Russia holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. This is a privilege, and it is a responsibility. Yet in Syria, and in Aleppo, Russia is abusing this historic privilege.”

Strong words. Her Russian counterpart retorted back that the United States is responsible for the deteriorating situation in Syria. But both delegations stopped short of the brink.

The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan Di Mistura, pleaded to halt what he termed the “new heights of horror” and asked for 48-hour pauses in the fighting for evacuations and humanitarian relief.

I hope his plea will be heard by all parties, the Syrian government and the armed groups as well as their respective international, regional and Arab backers. However, the fight for complete control of the city of Aleppo seems to be a highly-valued strategic objective by Damascus and Moscow, and before there will be a new occupant in the Oval Office in January. As a matter of fact, the Syrian permanent representative to the UN said during the Security Council emergency session Sunday that the Syrian government would reclaim all of the city.

Strangely enough, while talks, meetings, consultations and discussions were ongoing in New York and Boston about the urgent steps needed to salvage the cessation of hostilities, the Arabs were conspicuous in their absence. This absence illustrates the complete marginalisation of Arab countries from deciding not only the future of Syria, but also the future of the Middle East.

I will conclude by a quote from the eighth and last speech of President Barack Obama before the General Assembly as president of the United States. I find his words very relevant. He said: “… We have to be honest about the nature of these conflicts. No outside actor… will ever be able to force people from different religions or ethnic groups to coexist peacefully.

“In a place like Syria, where there is no ultimate military victory to be won, we are going to have to pursue the hard work of diplomacy that aims to stop the violence and deliver aid to those in need, and support those who pursue a political settlement and can see those who are not like themselves as worthy of dignity and respect.”

Both the Egyptian and American positions on Syria are almost identical. Hopefully, Egyptian diplomacy, in the few decisive months ahead, will cooperate with its international and Arab allies and partners, foremost with the United States and Russia, to translate the Geneva Agreement into a reality on the ground, with automatic Security Council sanctions on parties that violate the cessation of hostilities or block the delivery of humanitarian aid to all besieged areas within Syria.


The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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