Middle East

UN meets under shadow of Mid-East turmoil

A Syrian boy plays on a destroyed tank near a destroyed mosque in Azaz, northern Syria. Photo: 23 September 2012
Image caption There is no disguising the fact that Syria is a UN failure, diplomats admit

Two things are almost certain about this year's debate at the UN General Assembly: it will be overshadowed by crises in the Middle East, and world leaders who have descended on New York will not be able to solve them.

They are not even officially on the agenda.

First, there are the roiling anti-American protests caused by the video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad.

The violent reaction in Muslim countries has raised old controversies about the limits of freedom of expression and the right to protection against religious defamation.

And it has raised new concerns about stability in the democracies born of the Arab Spring.

Then, there is the war that the UN cannot stop.

"Syria will be at the top of my agenda," the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told journalists in a news conference previewing the year's most intense week of diplomacy. "It will be at the top of every leader's mind."

'Permanent paralysis'

That is probably because at this point there is no disguising the fact that Syria is a UN failure.

Divided over whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should play any role in a political transition, the Security Council could not reach a common position, let alone take action.

Kofi Annan, the first special envoy tasked with crafting a solution to the crisis, gave up in despair. And his replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi, seems at a loss for a strategy.

One place where Syria is likely to come up as an issue this week is a Security Council meeting on the supposed revitalisation of the Arab League in the wake of the Arab revolutions - a topic chosen precisely to avoid stirring up arguments that the council does not want to rehearse.

"The general feeling that we all have is that we are an audience in front of a tragedy," said one council diplomat. "The two sides are fighting apparently to the death, and in a sense we don't have a lot of means to influence the conflict."

But he said the impasse on the council was not unusual, citing as another example the more or less permanent paralysis over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Syria is part of a long list [of countries] where a major power doesn't want the UN to play a major role," he said.

"Most of the issues the UN is [able to] work on are not of crucial vital interest for the major powers. We are moving on some issues like DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Somalia, but on Syria? No way."

'Red line'

Indeed, Africa is high on the official agenda with summits addressing conflicts in and peace plans for the DR Congo, Sudan, Somalia and the Sahel.

And a topic that dominated last year - the Palestinians' bid for UN membership as a state - will return in a lesser form. They are now seeking the status of "observer state" after they failed to win enough council votes for full membership.

Image caption Iran and Israel have been trading increasingly belligerent rhetoric

Even then, they are expected to delay a vote until after the US presidential election in November because of American opposition.

For US President Barack Obama, the General Assembly this year is a distraction from electioneering, which is dominated by domestic matters.

However, international concerns cannot be ignored completely. Syria may not be an issue on the campaign trail, but Iran is, because it involves Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared on American television demanding a tougher US line on Iran's nuclear programme. He will take the same message to the assembly.

Mr Netanyahu is pressing for the declaration of a "red line" that Iran must not cross in its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons technology. Desperate to avoid an approach that could quickly escalate into military action, Western states are tightening sanctions instead.

Tehran, which continues to insist its intentions are peaceful despite its growing isolation, may again highlight what it sees as the world's double standard: punishing a member of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) because of suspicions about its nuclear programme, while glossing over the only nuclear armed state in the Middle East.

"The Israelis did not join the NPT and they do not recognise the [UN nuclear watchdog] IAEA," Iran's parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani told the Financial Times newspaper recently.

"They are doing what they want - producing nuclear bombs - and no-one questions it."

Foreign ministers of six world powers are expected to meet on the sidelines of the General Debate to discuss ways of overcoming the blockage in negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme - but few see any chance of a breakthrough.

Expectations of breakthroughs at the General Assemblies are - in any case - misplaced, say diplomats.

This week is more about speeches and atmospherics than substance.

But the Middle East remains an uncomfortable reminder of the UN's shortcomings, with Syria a monument to diplomatic failure, and Iran's nuclear programme the possible trigger for the region's next war.

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