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On Syria, De Mistura Pitches Free(ze) Zones, Hasn't Vetted With Damascus

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, October 30 -- When longtime UN system diplomat Staffan de Mistura reappeared at the UN on October 30, he came to the Security Council stakeout and spoke of "freeze zones." Or so most present heard it -- some later said he meant "free" zone, akin to local ceasefires.

  But it was impossible to clarify: de Mistura took only four questions, careful selected, including Voice of America, France 24 and Al Jazeera English. While de Mistura, ever the dandy, ascribe his choice to gender balance - much needed - there was no ideological or geo-political balance.

 Afterward, Syria's Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari took many more questions, from across the spectrum: Japanese media, TASS, France 24, Al Mayadeen. Inner City Press asked him about the "freeze" (or free) zones. Whatever they are called, Mistura had yet to speak to Syria's government about them.

  The Security Council, at 7 pm, issued a notably short 48-word Press Statement of support. The shortest UNSC statement ever?

  Inner City Press also asked Ja'afari about the Golan Heights. He replied that UN Peacekeeping under Herve Ladsous had ignored the Nusra Front takeovers in the area, and previously kidnapping of Filipinos peacekeepers. We'll have more on this.

  Back on October 7, while the defense of Kobane or Ayn al-Arab in Syria from ISIL was largely been carried out by the Kurds themselves,  UN envoy Staffan de Mistura jumped in calling for outside action. The UN said de Mistura said:

"The world has seen with its own eyes the images of what happens when a city in Syria or in Iraq is overtaken by the terrorist group called ISIS or Da'esh: massacres, humanitarian tragedies, rapes, horrific violence. The city of Kobane on the northern border of Syria, close to Turkey, has been under siege now for three weeks. There were 400000 inhabitants . They have been defending themselves – they are all Kurds- they have been defending themselves with great courage. But they are now very close to not being able to do so. They are fighting with normal weapons, whereas the ISIS has got tanks and mortars. The international community needs to defend them. The international community cannot sustain another city falling under ISIS. Turkey has been very generous in receiving more than 200000 of its inhabitants but what is needed now is concrete action. The world, all of us, will regret deeply if ISIS is able to take over  a city which has defended itself with courage but is close to not being able to do so. We need to act now."

 The UN's noon briefing on October 7, before de Mistura's statement, was rife with questions on Kobane. One correspondent said Turkey had supported ISIL until a year ago; a Turkish state media correspondent then prefaced a question by saying that Hezbollah in Syria should have been raised.

   On October 6, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement, below, calling for action. By whom? Turkey which has its own interested position on the Kurd, and on the Assad government? Ban's statement:

"The Secretary-General is following with grave concern the ongoing offensive by ISIL on the northern Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab, which has already resulted in massive displacement of civilians, including into Turkey, and numerous death and injuries.
"In light of the gross and extensive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law the terrorist group has committed in areas that have fallen under its control in Syria and Iraq during its barbarous campaign, he urgently calls on all those with the means to do so to take immediate action to protect the beleaguered civilian population of Ayn al-Arab."

  While some find it strange to hear a UN Secretary General calling for military action -- the catch line is "General Moon" -- Ban can and does justify it as Responsibility to Protect which he has belatedly re-branded for himself as "Rights Up Front."

   But Ban only came up with "Rights Up Front" after his UN did nothing as the Sri Lanka government killed tens of thousands of civilians in northern Sri Lanka in 2009. Ban did not call for any action to protect civilians then, far from it.

  Either Ban has learned his lesson, or in this case there are major powers that since they have been unable to get a UN Security Council mandate for military action on Syria want the quasi legitimacy, or fig leaf, of Ban Ki-moon's call as authorization.

   Protecting civilians is good -- although Ban Ki-moon's UN has not even called for it in other circumstances. Self-interested military action dressed up as R2P? We'll see. Watch this site.

  On October 1, a week after the rebels of the "Syrian Opposition Coalition" were presented by some counties as the new or "only legitimate" government of Syria, they have called for "air support." Hadi al Bahra, who had a meeting with on September 27 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon which was publicized while banning the independent press, to Al Hayat:

"criticizes the failure to give sufficient support for the Free Syrian Army in its battle against ISIS and the Assad regime, calling on the international coalition to 'provide air cover for the FSA in the areas what will be wrestled from ISIS to protect them from the attacks of Assad’s air force and to help the FSA fill the void after driving ISIS out of northern Syria.'

"In an exclusive interview with Al Hayat newspaper, Bahra said that that 'the elimination of terrorism and extremism cannot be achieved through military operations alone, but through an integrated social and political process and through addressing the root cause of terrorism, namely the dictatorial Assad regime.'

"Commenting on the visit of the Syrian Coalition’s delegation to New York, Bahra said that 'we have received clear promises from the American administration that it would cooperate with the political and military leadership of the Syrian Revolution, a stance is also shared by countries such as France, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. All these countries share with us the same vision that the anti-ISIS campaign will not yield tangible results unless there are integrated political and social programs and full coordination with the Syrian opposition. The Russians will surely change their position towards the situation in Syria when the balance of forces is changed on the ground. Russia has specific interests in the region, so do the Russians support Assad out of love for it, or that because the Assad regime serve their interests as long as it holds to power. Therefore, when the balance of power is tipped the military and political burdens will outweigh the benefits of preserving the Assad regime and consequently its position will change.'" (Source: Syrian Coalition)

  On September 29, Inner City Press asked Ban's spokesman Stephane Dujarric why the independent press was banned, and who attended along with Hadi al Bahra.

  Dujarric said to ask the Syrian Opposition Coalition -- that is, no transparency from the UN -- and said that when Ban met non-governmental parties like Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu, only UN Photo was present. He said he was not equating the two.

 Inner City Press asked Dujarric if Ban met any other rebels during this General Debate, since there are many rebel groups in the world.

  Dujarric said the Syrian rebels were the only ones Ban met with. We'll have more on this.

  It was Saturday afternoon in a mostly empty UN when this photo-op was added to Ban's schedule, in his 38th floor office:

"05:20 pm    38th Floor    Photo Opportunity:  The Secretary-General with H.E. Mr. Hadi al-Bahra and other Members of the National Coalition of Syria Revolution and Opposition Forces

  But when Inner City Press went the requisite 30 minutes in advance in order to cover the photo-op, it was told that only the UN's in-house photo service could attend to create this propaganda photo.

  Inner City Press on behalf of the Free UN Coalition for Access, which pushes for media freedom, asked al-Bahra and the Syrian Coalition why it was closed. They tweeted back:

@innercitypress - We asked. But told by @UN_Spokesperson that option of opening to media only available to "member states".

   But, as Inner City Press immediate replied -- after finding that the photo op wasn't even on UN EZTV, the 29 channels of the UN's in-house TV network --  Ban held an open photo op on August 18 with Malala, who is not a member states. We'll have more on this.

   All week, Ban has been holding such meetings in his office with heads of state and government. Now, this one rebel group is in. What about other rebel groups? Doesn't this selectivity as least call out for transparency -- having other than in-house media present?

  Ban's UN is lawless -- including dodging service of legal papers for bringing cholera to Haiti.

  After 5 pm on Friday, September 26, the Syrian Coalition Media Office went out by email a speech, entitled "Hadi al Bahra addresses United Nations General Assembly."

 The question, asked by Inner City Press for the Free UN Coalition for Access, was where and when was this speech ostensibly given to the UN General Assembly? The rebels are not the government, at least not yet. So what did the e-mail mean?

After approval by the US Congress to arm and train rebels in Syria, and the airstrikes in Syria that began on September 22, Free Syrian Army commanders began complaining the strikes hit only ISIL (and Khorasan).

  The Syrian Opposition Coalition, set to be presented as a government in an event in the UN's Economic and Social Council chamber on September 24, put this out:

"Nasr al-Hariri, Secretary General of the Syrian Coalition, said that the Syrian people will not trust the international efforts to fight ISIS as long as they ignore the voices of millions of Syrians who have been subjected to the terror of the Assad regime and its allies,” during a visit to the FSA battalions in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, along with Mohammed Qaddah, Vice President of the Syrian Coalition. 'We regret that the international community has come up with partial solutions to the Syrian conflict in which hundreds of thousands were killed or detained by the Assad regime. The military strikes being carried out by the international coalition against the positions of ISIS and Al Nusra Front will be short of stemming the tide of extremism as long as they are directed against the symptoms of the problem and not its root cause. Moreover, these strikes will only be interpreted as an attempt to reproduce and rehabilitate the Assad regime and will prompt more Syrians to take up arms as long as the Assad regime is spared the military strikes.'

"Hariri also stress that any solution other than helping the Syrian people topples the Assad regime will only serve to consolidate extremism in Syria and the region. Therefore, the international community must assume its responsibilities and deal with the situation in Syria in a more realistic and responsible way. Hariri stresses that the world is not yet aware that the battle against terrorism cannot be solved only militarily, but must include an organized political process capable of addressing the root causes of extremism.

"The meager international support for the Syrian national projects, including the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Coalition, has led to the emergence of other projects that attracted many young people who do not necessarily endorse those projects’ vision. However, we are quite certain that those young people, when provided with the suitable alternative, will be an essential part of the mosaic structure on which the new Syria will be built.

"The Syrian people cannot accept watching the international coalition’s warplanes avenging the killing of journalist James Foley while failing to do justice to Hamza al-Khatib, Abdul Qader Al Saleh, Ghiath Matar and hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Furthermore, terrorism cannot be fought piecemeal, but its root causes must be addressed to save Syria and the whole world from the threats imposed by the extremist groups.” It is worth mentioning that many FSA commanders expressed their willingness to cooperate in order to further institutionalize the FSA and prepare it to effectively lead the struggle against the Assad regime and ISIS."

  On September 23, the UN's new (third) Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was supposed to take questions from the press at 4:50 pm on September 23. But he did not appear. After a time the UN said he was lost: he had gone to the wrong stakeout, but Spokesman Stephane Dujarric was looking for him.

   Finally after 6 pm de Mistura and Dujarric arrived. But de Mistura declined to comment on the airstrikes on Syria, deferring to Ban Ki-moon. Dujarric chose six questioners, three of whom were from Italian media. Dujarric called out "ANSA;" de Mistura said, "bongiorno" This is what the UN and this post have become: de Mistura is half-Italian, with little chance of success or even relevance it becomes a "local boy makes good" story.

  (Certainly, de Mistura may see it differently: Inner City Press has heard from a range of UN sources that de Mistura feels he could and should be Secretary General.)

  Normally Inner City Press would not comment on the nationality of the questioners selected. But earlier on September 23, Dujarric who is French was involved in a problematic French-only use of the UN Press Briefing Room by President Hollande.

  Dujarric peeked out of the door while Inner City Press was being told to leave the UN Press Briefing Room, partial video here; the Free UN Coalition for Access understands that Media Accreditation was told to back off from the French event by the Spokesman's Office. So. Noon briefings where this could be asked have been canceled; written questions have not been answered. This too is today's UN.

  On September 22 after a day of UN formalities, and with John Kerry with the Syrian Opposition Coalition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the US started bombing in Syria, see below. It cited help from five Arab Kingdoms in hitting ISIL by Raqqa, but went it alone against the Khorosan group near Aleppo.

  On September 23 when UK Development Secretary Justine Greening spoke about aid to Syria, Inner City Press asked her if these airstrikes were coordinated in any way with humanitarians on the ground, amid reports one was close to a hospital.

  Greening declined to get into the specifics, saying the UK was not part of the airstrike but supported them. She said that the spread of ISIL had hurt humanitarian efforts, which is certain.

  Greening said, "I won't get into the details, the UK was not part of the airstrikes. The advance of ISIL placed pressure on the ability of humanitarian workers."

   But why not coordinate with aid workers on the ground?  And what about this Khorosan group, until now mentioned only once in a White House briefing?

  On a background White House press call, a Senior Administration Official said that the US long told Russia that its support for Assad would lead to the rise of extremism. Unsaid was Russia's position that US allies' support of fighters in Syria led to extremism.

  Tellingly, Ban Ki-moon has yet to speak about the air strikes. Inner City Press asked his spokesman for a comment on the night of September 22, and saw this spokesman on September 23. But no answer.

  Inner City Press has put these questions to Dujarric:

Press questions on deadline: what is Ban Ki-moon's response to US on the record (and reportedly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and UAE) bombing in Syria without consent of Syrian government, or approval of the UN Security Council? Separately, was Ban Ki-moon informed in advance?

  Hours later, no response from the UN.

   Back on  September 19 while the UN Security Council's meeting on Iraq went on, Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird came out to take questions at the Council stakeout.

  Inner City Press asked him if Canada thinks that for airstrikes in Syria against ISIL, the consent of the Assad government or of the Security Council should be sought.

  Baird said that on "intervention in Syria there are two views. One could say that every country has a right to defend itself. Iraq is being attack by terrorists in the neighboring country. We take great issue with Assad... That has yet to be determined."

  The Syrian Opposition Coalition, it emerges, will hold a press conference inside the UN building on September 22. But it will not be a UN press conference - instead, it will be in the clubhouse the UN gives to what has become its UN Censorship Alliance (having tried to get the investigative Press thrown out of the UN), publicized only to those who pay money to UNCA in dues.

  Why not go through the front door, and have a member state like Canada sponsor the Syrian Coalition's Hadi Al Bahra in the UN Press Briefing Room, as others do? We'll have more on this.

  On September 18, the day after the US House of Representatives voted to arm and train "moderate" rebels in Syria, the Syrian Opposition Coalition said training 5,000 will not be enough. An hour later, they put out a statement about ISIL stranding 7,000 civilians on the Syrian - Turkish border:

"As the 'Islamic State' intensifies shelling on Ayn al Arab (Kobanę in Kurdish) in northern Syria, thousands of people remain trapped in the towns and villages in the area. As as a result, activists reported a mass exodus of civilians from the neighboring villages of Kaalak, Zark Qumshi, Zalkhek, and Turaman. The Syrian Coalition condemns ISIS's brutal tactics and calls on Turkish authorities to open borders in the area and provide refuge to those fleeing from the barbaric group. More than 7000 civilians are reported to be stranded along the Turkish Syrian borders since Thursday, most of them women and children."

 Echoes of Mount Sinjar in Iraq - and that led to airstrikes. Earlier on September 18, the Syrian Coalition put this out:

"Abdelahad Astepho, member of the political committee, said that the US Congress’s vote in favor of President Obama’s plan to train and equip the Free Syrian Army is 'a step in the right direction though it was made late. Limiting the training and equipment program to 5,000 FSA fighters is not enough to counter the threat of the Assad regime and ISIS. Therefore, it is necessary to increase the number of trainees to solve the whole problem of terrorism once and for all. Moreover, limiting the program to this small number may prolong the bloody conflict, thus prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people.' Astepho calls on the US Senate 'to back the training and equipment program and for its immediate implementation, as any delay will cost Syrians more lives. Any delay in the implementation of this plan will lead to further expansion of the terror practiced by the Assad regime and the terrorist group ISIS.'"

 This after on the Senate floor just who these "moderate" rebels are was still being questioned. If 5000 is not enough, how many would be? To the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 17, former Ambassador Bob Ford said there are 80,000 "non-Nusra, non-ISIL" rebels. Where do these figures come front?

   Back on September 13, hours after US President Barack Obama's speech, the Syrian Coalition put out a press release requesting airstrikes and cash from Congress, pronto.

While more than two dozen countries pledged support for Iraq against the Islamic State in the Security Council on September 19, who would speak on UNTV about it?

  For more than an hour the media was told that French foreign minister Laurent Fabius would be “coming to the stakeout” to take questions on UNTV. It was pushed back, then when finally Fabius emerged he rushed past the stakeout into the hallway, where he spoke only in French.
 Update: to be fair, the French Mission put out this transcript.

  So too with Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. When he emerged from the Security Council, he summoned Turkish media down the hallway for a private stakeout. Some non-Turkish journalists weren't allowed to go, something protested by the Free UN Coalition for Access. But why not openly take questions?

  The three on-camera stakeouts that occurred were by Syria's Bashar Ja'afari, Iraq's Foreign Minister Jaafari (no relation, if that needs to be said), and Canada's John Baird. To the last of these, Inner City Press asked if before any bombing in Syria consent should be sought from Damascus or the Council. That has “yet to be determined,” Baird replied.

  Iraqi FM Jaafari, when Inner City Press asked if the Coalition should speak with Syria, seemed to dodge the question. But at least he took questions on camera, as did Syria's Ja'afari. Where were the others? Is this how GA Week will be? FUNCA in is on the case, including about faux UN press conferences like those held in the private club handed out by the UN to its Censorship Alliance. That group tried to get the investigative Press thrown out of the UN, now masquerades on media freedom. This is how the UN works. Watch this site.


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