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Amid Syria impasse, Ban pushes Obama to be ‘stronger’

This, I think, needs repeating. When it comes to Syria, the United Nations is stuck. You could almost be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the extraordinary number of meetings, investigations, and resolutions currently devoted to resolving a crisis that has left more than 70,000 dead and raised the specter of chemical warfare. On March 21, ...

This, I think, needs repeating.

When it comes to Syria, the United Nations is stuck.

You could almost be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the extraordinary number of meetings, investigations, and resolutions currently devoted to resolving a crisis that has left more than 70,000 dead and raised the specter of chemical warfare.

On March 21, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to send a U.N. team to Syria to investigate claims of chemical weapons use. I haven’t spoken to a single diplomat or U.N. official who believes the team will ever be let into the country.

In the U.N. General Assembly, Qatar is asking governments to support a resolution that would bolster the Syrian rebels’ international legitimacy. A final-watered down version may ultimately be passed, but like previous UNGA resolutions on Syria, its impact will be largely symbolic — another stern demonstration of Syria’s diplomatic isolation.

Lakdhar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council on April 19, regarding his latest efforts to persuade the warring factions to agree to a political transition. Prospects for a peaceful transition have never looked bleaker.

There’s a long history of diplomatic standstills generating a flurry of diplomatic action leading nowhere. In Darfur, Sudan, the U.N. Security Council once authorized a U.N. peacekeeping mission even though it was clear Khartoum would not let it into the country. In Bosnia, the council created U.N. safe havens that it couldn’t be defend.

Syria is no different.

"The UN has been entirely cut out … and I think there is no reason to believe any of these current activities is going to make the slightest difference on the ground," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "What you see at the U.N. are diplomats creating noise to conceal the fact that they are not making progress."

It’s unfair to write the U.N. off entirely.

The U.N. has been at the forefront of international efforts to raise concern about human rights abuses in Syria, while organizing the world’s humanitarian response and collecting a catalogue of evidence of war crimes that could ultimately be used to hold some of Syria’s worst human rights violators accountable for their crimes. And Ban has been outspoken in scolding the perpetrators of violence and pushing major powers to step up to the plate.

"On Syria, this is a most troubling situation where all the leaders of the world should really take a much more strengthened leadership role," Ban said after a meeting in the Oval Office with President Barack Obama. "I have asked President Obama to demonstrate and exercise his stronger leadership in working with key partners of the Security Council."

But the council — the only U.N. institution that has real clout — has been paralyzed by a big power dispute between China and Russia on one side, and the United States, Europe, and Arab governments on the other. The dispute poisons virtually every discussion.

The chemical weapons investigation is a case in point.

Last month, the Syrian government asked the U.N. secretary general to investigate its claim that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons in a March 19 attack that killed 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers. Russia quickly rallied to Syria’s defense, urging Ban to carry out the investigation as swiftly as possible.

But Britain and France, citing opposition claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, subsequently urged Ban to expand the investigation to include alleged incidents in Homs and Damascus. Ban agreed to look at all cases.

Syria, meanwhile, balked, insisting that U.N. could only investigate the single case in Aleppo. Russia has largely backed Syria’s position, and made it clear that it would not allow the council to be used to pressure Syria to consent.

There has been no independent confirmation that chemical weapons were used, nor has there been confirmation that such munitions were used in some other recent cases, as alleged by the opposition. But Britain and France have presented the United Nations with information indicating numerous possible incidents of chemical weapons use.

Lacking Security Council support, Ban this week sought to coax Damascus into granting visas by announcing that the inspection team had already traveled to Cyprus, and was ready to go to Syria within 24 hours. "They are now ready to go," Ban reiterated following his meeting with Obama.

But U.N. officials and diplomats say privately that Syria, which has already refused Ban’s terms for the probe, is unlikely to let the team in. "We’re at an impasse," said one council diplomat.. "It doesn’t look good."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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