As noted in earlier posts, big hopes were riding on the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). And as expected, the session was dominated by events in the ruined country known as Syria – once the beating heart of Arab nationalism – which we have discussed in recent posts here, here and here. Despite the veneer of cordiality, world leaders could not conceal the tensions between them. They are divided over the future of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. President Putin had thrown himself in the limelight in advance of the session by flexing Russia’s military might in the historic – without notice – style of the former Soviet Union. Predictably, on 28 September, he opportunistically presented himself as the missing link in the Syrian puzzle. The clever Russian president did not conceal his intentions in an impassioned speech which provided him the ideal opportunity to announce his future plans. Putin’s fans, like his blunt instrument in Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, rejoiced when military action ultimately became a reality and requested to be sent in as a ground force to fight (preferably hand-to-hand) the jihadis of ISIS.
After Putin had set the stage, just a couple of days later, on 30 September 2015, when Russia initiated airstrikes in Syria the west responded negatively and US defence secretary Ashton Carter accused the Kremlin of “pouring gasoline on fire”. However, unlike some others (e.g. Great Britain) Russia took military action with the consent of its parliament and at the invitation of a sovereign government – albeit the collapsing, murderous and much hated regime in Damascus. But Russia is nonetheless being condemned for attacking the Free Syrian Army and others – who have built up a resistance to Moscow’s intervention – rather than the Islamic State. The latest reports clarify that in addition to the airstrikes, four Russian ships fired 26 missiles into Syria and hit 11 targets. According to Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, the strikes involved the use of precise long-range missiles launched from the Caspian Sea that travelled some 1,500 kilometers/930 miles before hitting their targets.
Below we take a look at what world leaders said at the global forum’s historic seventieth session where the scene was reminiscent of the forgotten days of the Cold War. Obama and Putin childishly cold-shouldered one and other and the American leader’s sanctimonious address focussed on tyrants and bullies interspersed with the twin virtues of diplomacy and democracy.
First up, Obama could not resist sabre rattling with Moscow and urged the international community that “dictatorships are unstable” and also remarked that “dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker world.” To the joy of his admirers watching Russian TV at home and countless others elsewhere on the planet, Putin walked down the stairs of his official jet as Obama began his speech. Likewise, in an equally timely rebuke, when Putin addressed the chamber, only minor American officials remained to hear his avuncular speech.
After seven decades of the ideals enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, the political picture exposed by the UNGA’s session is that world leaders failed to see eye-to-eye and they therefore also failed to use the historic global forum to seize upon the opportunity and hammer out a solution to the Syrian war. Instead, locking horns over Syria and Ukraine Obama and Putin advanced different visions of the future and the latter is accused of shoring up a despotic regime that drops barrel bombs on its own civilians and has killed some 300,000 civilians.
It is interesting to note that in just over a week, with a dozen daily Russian airstrikes on average, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has strongly disapproved of Russian actions and Moscow’s deliberate violation of Turkish airspace. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace on 3 October – in the province of Hatay bordering Syria – was not accidental; he called the flights “unacceptable violations of Turkish airspace.” After all, the Turks and the Russians have fought at least a dozen wars between 1568-1918. Turkish F-16s were scrambled to deal with Moscow’s cavalier violations of Ankara’s airspace. (However, it must be said that it is hard to see what the fuss is about because the Israelis and the Turks are constantly violating Syrian airspace.)
Yet there is total disarray over a unified policy on Syria. For example, the Americans say that Putin does not have an “end game” in sight and that Russian forces will remain in Syria for some time to come. More to the point, the UK is totally incoherent about its true stance. Equally, the Pentagon has wasted $500 million on training and arming groups opposing the Damascus regime but their trainees, who were detained, were easily disbanded by the al-Qaida leaning Jabhat al-Nusra.
On the one hand, the British foreign secretary Philip Hammond says that Assad will stay on indefinitely – well recorded in his view that he accepts that the Syrian president could remain as long as it takes to end the war – whereas his boss David Cameron says that the “butcher” must go. For Cameron, the Russian intervention is a “terrible mistake”. Just today, Cameron has yet again reiterated his pledge, to oust Assad, in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference.
In August 2013, David Cameron’s (the coalition) government lost its bid to join US-led strikes in military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the motion in support of military intervention was defeated in Parliament by 285-272 votes. Undeterred, last month he nonetheless resorted to sanctioning drone attacks on British jihadis on the ISIS strong hold of Raqqa and he is now seeking fresh parliamentary approval for British military action (which cannot be of any real value given that a multitude of militaries are active in the region in any event).
The British prime minister, who has no real vision for the Middle East and has resorted to making muddled and contradictory statements at different stages of the Syrian war, is not without allies and 41 extremist groups – including Ahrar al-Sham, Islam Army and the Levant Front – warned Russia that its involvement in the war was ill-advised and “a crushing defeat” was imminent. Ahrar al-Sham’s announcement apparently points to the fact that western acolytes such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also part of the initiative that has coalesced owing to the Russian intervention.
On the other hand, providing much needed credibility to his own country’s head in the sand foreign policy, the former editor of the Telegraph and Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer, Charles Moore labelled Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East to be a “disgrace” (on 1 October’s Question Time).
Walid Jumblaat – the Lebanese Druze leader who was a long term supporter of Hafiz al-Assad, has ties to Moscow and nowadays also says that Jabhat al-Nusra are not terrorists whereas Bashar al-Assad is –took the view that no transition to a new administration is possible because the institutions are too intertwined with the Alawites and the Assad family who have dominated Damascus for decades.
As noted above, the Russian and American presidents traded blows. Putin was seen as a “wildcard” in the hotly anticipated speeches delivered on Monday 28 September 2015. Arriving at the UN just as Obama’s speech was coming to an end, in his own speech after a decade at the historic venue Putin said:
We believe it’s a huge mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities, with the government forces, those are bravely fighting terror face-to-face.
However, Obama was eager to show that he would not play second fiddle to Putin and he let it be known:
We must recognise that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, after so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.
China’s Xi Jinping was more diplomatic than Obama and Putin. He did not mention Syria by name but emphasised the importance of national security as a keystone of the UN and wisely explained in Chinese proverbial style:
Those who adopt the high-handed approach of using force will find that they are only lifting a rock to drop on their own feet.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, whose country is on the cusp of normalising relations with the west after three-and-a-half decades but is simultaneously charged with supporting Assad though the Shia proxy militia Hizbollah, rather diplomatically argued that:
We are prepared to assist in the eradication of terrorism and in paving the way for democracy. As we aided the establishment of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are prepared to help to bring about democracy in Syria and also Yemen.
French president François Hollande, whose air force has also been pounding targets in Syria, remained intransigent to ground realities and inclined to the view that:
Russia, Iran say that they want to be more involved in a political solution. We need to work these countries, tell them that solution, transition must happen, but without Bashar al-Assad.
But on a more cheerful note, the Palestinian flag was raised at the UN and we would like to express our solidarity with the cause of the Palestinian people’s right to freedom and self-determination. From the podium where the above leaders addressed us with their viewpoints, one Abu Ammar, the late Yasser Arafat, had memorably excited us long years ago: on 13 November 1973 he simply submitted that:
Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.
Regrettably, the olive branch is long gone and Arafat’s tactics to bring peace to Palestine have all but faded away and the ageing Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said to world leaders that the Palestinian people were no longer bound by the two decade old Oslo Accords which were aimed at achieving a two-state solution to the perennial conflict. Abbas quite rightly called Israel an “apartheid regime” and advocating “international protection” for his people the Palestinian president was unequivocal that:
We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements and that Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power because the status quo cannot continue.
Unfortunately for Abbas and the victims of Israeli aggression, the Americans and the Israelis are united in condemning the International Criminal Court’s decision to open a preliminary probe into possible Israeli war crimes committed against Palestinians. The US described the move as a “tragic irony”. Maintaining that it opposed actions against its longstanding ally Israel as “counterproductive to the cause of peace”, Washington was rather disturbed by the preliminary probe into Israeli war crimes.
Back in the UNGA, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused president Abbas of rejecting the peace process. Palestine’s longtime nemesis and a detractor of the peace process, Netanyahu accused Iran of supporting terrorist networks of all persuasions in the Middle East and posed the question “just imagine what Iran will do once the sanctions are lifted?” but he cleverly relegated bouts with Obama over the Iran deal to the status of “disagreements between the family”.
Our own prime minister Nawaz Sharif touched upon the predicament in the Middle East and noted that the “tragedy” of Palestine had “intensified”. Equally, characterising terrorism as “the vortex of conflict and instability” his speech was dominated by Pakistan’s membership of the nuclear weapons club and to curry support with the western powers he said:
As a responsible nuclear weapon state, Pakistan will continue to support the objectives of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. We have maintained the highest standards of nuclear security and have established an effective regime to ensure the safety and security of our nuclear facilities and stocks. South Asia needs strategic stability and this requires serious dialogue to achieve nuclear restraint, conventional balance and conflict resolution.