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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012

Civil war in Syria overshadows U.N. session


UNITED NATIONS — Syria's ongoing civil war has shadowed the current U.N. General Assembly, presenting both the danger of a widening regional humanitarian crisis and the challenge of a politically deadlocked U.N. Security Council.

The 18th month conflict between the Damascus rulers and a wide coalition of opposition forces has seen more than 20,000 people killed, mostly civilians.

Equally it has triggered a major refugee crisis impacting not only inside Syria but on neighboring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

"With no end to the fighting in sight, with serious food and medicine shortages and with winter approaching, it is high time to discuss at the highest level what the needs are and how we can bring help to people who need, it," said Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid.

During a high level meeting hosted by the European Union and the Kingdom of Jordan, U.N. member states were updated on the tragic humanitarian toll as a consequence of the widening violence inside Syria.

Significantly the EU is the largest donor of emergency relief with a combined total of $287 million in aid from both member states and the European Commission.

Commissioner Georgieva told correspondents that as a result of the conflict the "flames are spreading to other areas beyond Syria," and while countries need to do more, relief agencies "need more access in Syria" where both sides must allow humanitarian access.

Headlines from Homs, Hama and Aleppo, have highlighted what she later told this writer "is largely an urban war," and thus "delivery of humanitarian aid is difficult."

The U.N.'s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos put the matter into wider context. Since March, when about 1 million people were affected by the fighting, the number has jumped to 2.5 million displaced persons. These figures come from a population of 22 million.

The number of refugees leaving Syria stands at 300,000, mostly fleeing to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey.

Tragically according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that number could double by year's end. In other words the crisis is worsening.

While 90,000 refugees are currently in Turkey, the Ankara government is quickly expanding reception centers which are expected to hold up to 130,000 people.

I've been discussing the sanguinary symptoms of the Syrian revolt, the root cause of which remains political. But barring a swift victory of the Free Syrian Army and a gaggle of opposition forces — including some hardline Islamic jihadists — over the Assad dictatorship, the paradox returns to possible outside military intervention.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council remains dangerously deadlocked in an East/West divide where even tepid resolutions against the Damascus regime have been blocked by Moscow and Beijing. During the past year Russia and China have used their rare double-veto on three separate occasions.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle advised the General Assembly, "To this very day, the Security Council has failed to live up to its responsibility for people in Syria. The deadlock in the Security Council must not continue. Every day, the violence perpetrated by the Bashar Assad regime is escalating."

French President Francois Hollande implored, "We have the duty to take action. To take action together because it is a matter of urgency. ... How can we accept the U.N.'s paralysis?"

Hollande called for "France to recognize, once it's formed, the interim government representing the new Syria. ... I demand that the United Nations immediately provide the Syrian people with all the assistance, all the support they're asking for, particularly for the liberated areas to be protected and humanitarian assistance provided to the refugees."

Speaking of "liberated areas" and safe zones may hold a rhetorical appeal for France, but who will send troops to protect the "buffer zones"?

I asked Commissioner Georgieva whether she supports such a plan to help deliver humanitarian aid. She carefully responded that the EU would only favor such an arrangement if it were supported unanimously by the Security Council. That's means Russian and China too.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague stated, "That the Security Council has failed to act on its clear responsibilities in the case of Syria is inexcusable ... it is a terrible indictment of the council that over 22,000 people have died since it first failed to agree to a resolution to stem to violence."

As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius conceded, "As long as the Security Council is deadlocked, with the Chinese and Russians sticking to their positions, Bashar Assad will stay there." Tragically this crisis seems far from over.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.

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