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On Syria, UN's Ban Offers No Caution on an Obama Bombing, from Seoul

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, August 26 -- Amid an increasing drumbeat of media coverage predicting US missile strikes on Syria, regardless of what the UN chemical weapons investigation team finds in the suburbs of Damascus, a question has arisen whether the strikes would take place with the UN team still in the country.

    In a six-question Seoul press conference on August 26, beyond three questions about North Korea and two about Japan and China, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was asked on Syria to comment on "a possible strike, President Obama is apparently mulling that over."

  But tellingly, Ban did not offer any real caution against doing that -- even with UN staff and investigators still "on the ground" there. From the UN's transcript:

Q: In regards to Syria, Britain and the US officials have suggested that an investigation at this point might be without result because Damascus has had time to cover up some of the evidence. What does the UN hope to find from this investigation? What actions would the UN be willing to take? The US Navy has repositions itself in the Mediterranean Sea for a possible strike. President Obama is apparently mulling that over. Could you comment on that as well?

SG: As you know the United Nations inspection team was on the ground in Damascus even before this most recent attack which happened on 21 August. After a very in-depth and intense negotiation with the Syrian Government, we have reached a joint understanding which was announced yesterday that inspection will begin from today, in just a few hours later in Syrian time. On the sites, we have been asking them to provide unfettered access to all the suspicious sites. And our team led by Dr. [Åke] Sellström will begin investigations to gather all evidence and samples and analyses of this situation.

This is our firm position: There should be an unfettered, unconditional access provided by the Syrian Government. At the same time, it is important that the opposition forces should also provide and assure the safety and security of our inspection team because this inspection team will have to conduct their activities in the opposition force-controlled area. It is important that both sides immediately cease military activities so that the inspection team will safely conduct this investigation. Whatever differences there may be, it is important that all the differences of opinions should be resolved peacefully through dialogue. That is our firm position since the beginning of the crisis. As I told you any attack by weapons of mass destruction like chemical weapons is a serious crime against humanity. The United Nations is very much committed, and I have instructed the inspection team to have a speedy, independent and full investigation and report to me as soon as possible.

  Ban's office put out a statement on Sunday noting that "the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic affirmed that it will provide the necessary cooperation, including the observance of the cessation of hostilities at the locations related to the incident."

  But did Ban ask the Obama administration not to fire missiles, at least at this time? Will he?

Also, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has been putting out maps of where UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations have a presence inside Syria. Will they be informed or avoided? Or was that the purpose of the maps?

  On US Sunday morning talk shows, CBS' Margaret Brennan noted that Jeffrey Feltman, now Ban's political chief but until recently the US State Department's face in the Middle East, will be heading to Iran after his quiet, some say craven, trip to Egypt. She implied Feltman could carry a message from the Obama administration, or about the threatened strikes, to Tehran. But is that the UN's role?

  (How Feltman's post-Egypt itinerary, including Doha, was announced not by the UN but to for example the FARS News Agency, State Department press and columnists remains a question, which will be pursued by the new Free UN Coalition for Access.)

  Those who fetishize international law point out that the exception to needing UN Security Council approval for the use of force is Article 51 of the UN Charter, which concerns SELF-defense. Could a US missile strike be construed as that?

As to the UN, will Ban Ki-moon be seeking to speak for international law, or only to be seen as "in the loop" before a strike takes place? Watch this site.

Update of August 26, 3:10 am : Turkey says it would join coalition on Syria without UN Security Council approval -- that "Turkish Lounge" in front of UNSC notwithstanding.


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