Syria stalemate continues at UN

As the UN general assembly begins its annual session, there is little hope for any clear progress on the Syrian conflict

On a sunny Sunday morning, in the rose garden behind the UN headquarters, and beside New York’s east river, the crowd gathered. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was joined by diplomats, dignitaries and the usual splattering of celebrities (Forrest Whittaker and Michael Douglas were among those present).

The band played, and the choir sung songs of peace.

All the talk was of harmony and global goodwill. And, as has happened every year since the 1980s, the secretary-general rang the peace bell, which was made from pennies donated by children around the world.

Everyone meant well.

Throughout the ceremony, however, my thoughts raced back to the Middle East.

What would the people of Syria think of this event?

It was taking place beside the building where the Security Council has met numerous times on Syria, and yet because of stalemate and division, has failed to stop the bloodshed, which has now claimed over 20,000 lives, according to rights groups.

In the refugee camps in Lebanon, and during two trips across the border into Syria’s Homs province this year, I have repeatedly heard the same plea: men, women and children asking for international help to end the violence.

There have now been three resolutions on Syria defeated by vetoes from Russia and China. Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, says the dispute over Syria has polluted the atmosphere around the council table.

“Actually the council has never been so polarised. You know, three vetoes by Russia and China in a row on the same issue – we have never seen that since the end of the Cold War.

“And of course it has some consequences on the atmosphere of the Security Council, you know, when you feel the tension between the members.”

Over the next week, presidents, prime ministers, ministers and ambassadors from the world over will all be in New York for the annual meetings of the UN General Assembly.

With so many key players in the same place, at the same time, is there any hope of a fresh initiative?

Probably not.

Everyone will be talking about Syria. But there is little likelihood of fresh action.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League special representative on Syria, will brief the Security Council on Monday, before all the leaders start their speeches at the General Assembly on Tuesday. All, including him, agree that he has a near-impossible job, and is unlikely to propose a new initiative.

The so-called Quartet (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt) will meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York, but Western diplomats are already briefing journalists that their efforts will fail.

And the “Friends of Syria” group will meet again on Friday. Its meetings, however, are boycotted by Russia and China.

Perhaps, the only area where there could be some progress is on humanitarian help for the people of Syria.

Funding is desperately needed, both for those inside Syria, and those who have fled to neighbouring countries.

The UN says it needs $347 million to deal with the humanitarian emergency. Only about a third of that has so far been pledged.

Valerie Amos, the UN’s humanitarian chief told Al Jazeera that she would be lobbying all the leaders she meets this week to give more funds.

But she acknowledges that even if they get the money, it does not solve the underlying problem.

“We’re seeing increased violence. We’re seeing both parties indulging in practices I think we all find really difficult. There’s been a brutal turn to this.”

“We need to engage in diplomacy. At the moment, the different sides in Syria think conflict is the only answer. The international community needs to take a stand, and say that’s not right.”

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