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After UN Spins Syria Desert Photo, & SNC Urges Invasion Like Iraq, What Next?

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, February 18 -- Now that the UN's refugee agency UNHCR has acknowledged that in the much-tweeted photograph of 4 year old Syrian refugee Marwan alone in the desert, his family was 20 paces ahead, what happens next?

   Within the UN system this type of messaging, if not outed, is congratulated. But now? And those in the media who ran with it, or as UNHCR now says, created it -- do they now have to reverse themselves with regard to this photo? Will they?

  In the too-closed world of UN Headquarters in New York, for example, among the "world updates from UNCA Correspondents" by the United Nations Correspondents Association which hosted a faux "UN briefing" for Syrian National Coalition head Ahmad al Jarba in July, Marwan was described as a "4 year old crossing the desert alone." Alone?

  By contrast, a written UN report stating that the Free Syrian Army recruits and uses child soldiers was ignored for five days, until Syria talks in Geneva (where the information might embarrass the opposition delegation) was over, click here for that.

   How about reporting what the SNC actually says? With the talks in Geneva stalled, the SNC's "Secretary General" Badr Jamous on February 17 put out a statement that "if Russia vetoes a potential UN resolution, then actions outside the Security Council must be taken following the example of Iraq."

  Because Iraq has worked out so well? Jamous' call came after a widely vilified article by Jeffrey Sachs, himself a UN official of sorts though to his credit he doesn't take his orders from Ban Ki-moon, that counseled an end to US calls for regime change in Syria.

   Sachs praised incremental changes in Myanmar -- no mention of the Rohingya, for example -- and asserted that if the US stopped aiding Syria rebels, Saudi Arabia and Qatar might as well. Really?

 After US President Barack Obama met with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Rancho Mirage, California, a self-described US Senior Administration Official said "Jordan and the United States are both working together in the Security Council at present and there is an ongoing, pretty intensive negotiation over a potential humanitarian resolution in the Security Council aimed at not only condemning the atrocities, but trying to create a legal predicate for cross-border operations and cross-line operations."

  In terms of creating a "legal predicate," the Western draft resolution

"demands that the Syrian authorities promptly facilitate rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and across borders from neighboring countries, and lift all restrictions on cross-border humanitarian access, in particular, via Turkey and Iraq, and stresses, in this regard, the particularly urgent need for the Syrian authorities to reopen the Yariba border crossing with Iraq."

  But as described below, the Russian counter-draft

"urges all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, to promptly facilitate safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need, through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries, in accordance with the UN guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance."

  Could the US and its allies objec to "the UN guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance"?

  In terms of the negotiations process in New York being "intensive," Inner City Press covered the February 14 session, it was at the "experts" level and the Lithuanian presidency did not provide a summary much less question and answer stakeout afterward, as the Free UN Coalition for Access requested at the beginning of the month. (China, by contrast, held nine Q&A stakeouts during its recent Security Council presidency; for Lithuania as of February 15 the number is zero.)

   The UN Spokesperson's office did not announce in advance mediator Lakhdar Brahimi's down-beat February 15 press conference in Geneva, at which no date was set for any more talks; the UN in New York is closed until February 18. Intensive?

   Russia had counter-proposed a Syria humanitarian resolution, and has also proposed a counter-terrorism Presidential Statement, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the press on February 13.

   Churkin said after Russia heard US statements about the rise of terrorism in Syria, the idea of the Presidential Statement arose. He said Russia's counter-draft resolution on humanitarian access also has terrorism language.

   Inside the Security Council in an otherwise nearly empty UN, humanitarian chief Valerie Amos' briefing and closed door consultations continued. Earlier on February 13, Inner City Press exclusively reported on a four page letter the Syrian mission submitted to the Security Council president, naming towns which the armed opposition -- "terrorists" -- were blockading. Click here for that.

  At the February 13 UN noon briefing, Inner City Press asked UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky to confirm these blockades. He replied that the UN has never denied that there are blockages from the opposition side. But if Valerie Amos won't name the opposition groups, the UN's or her critique appears to be one-sided.

  On February 10 in the US State Department briefing, deputy spokesperson Marie Harf had talked up the humanitarian resolution; she was asked why the US is supposedly deferring to the too-slow UN, after the high level humanitarian meeting in Rome.

  Churkin said on February 10 that Rome meeting has been "quite useless" and that it "departed from the original conception." On February 13 he criticized it again, contrasting it to what he called Russia's practical approach. He said the Russian embassy in Damascus was involved in the deal(s) to get aid into Homs.

   US State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf on February 13 insisted that the US supports the Australian - Luxembourg - Jordan draft. But what about the Russian submission, now on counter-terrorism?

  From Geneva, France 24 reported wanly on the Brahimi talks; in New York, it asked Churkin if a vote should be expect before the Olympics are over. He said, there is no connection.

  Neither France 24, nor other ostensibly Syria-focused media have done much follow up, but on January 29 Inner City Press first published quotes from the UN's report on Syria Children and Armed Conflict, specifically that the Free Syrian Army recruits and uses child soldiers:

"Throughout the reporting period, the United Nations received consistent reports of recruitment and use of children by FSA-affiliated groups."

  Inner City Press asked the US Mission to the UN to respond to the report, since Congress in its 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act said the US Government should condemn the use of child soldiers by paramilitaries like the FSA. Inner City Press was told to put the request for comment in writing, and did, to the UK Mission as well.

   The report had already been circulated to Security Council members in English; the UK said it would wait to provide Inner City Press with a comment until the report was made official on February 3, that is to say, when it was translated into the UN's five other official languages and put on the Internet.

   Readers asked Inner City Press where on the UN website to find the Syria child soldiers report. Inner City Press told them it would go online on February 3, and noted that the Free UN Coalition for Access had previously opposed the UN withholding or delaying the release of important document like this.

  In this case, however, the delay affirmatively helped the Syrian opposition. On January 29 they were in Geneva, issuing statements about abuses by the Assad government. They were not asked about the Free Syrian Army's use of child soldiers.

   On February 3, Inner City Press again asked the UK for its comment, and it did arrive the following day on February 4:

"The UK absolutely condemns the use of child soldiers in all cases, and strongly supports international efforts to stop the use of child soldiers. We urge all parties in the Syrian conflict to release any children held in detention.

"Armed conflict affects millions of lives around the world, and children are among those most vulnerable to the effects of conflict. The only way to secure the long-term future of Syria’s children is to find a political solution to the crisis.

"We have made clear our absolute condemnation of the use of child soldiers. As noted in this report, the use of child soldiers by the opposition is not systematic and is limited to certain elements. We have provided training to the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian opposition on the law of armed conflict, and will continue to work with them to help ensure that they meet their obligations under international law."

    Before publishing the UK's quote, Inner City Press again in writing asked two spokespeople of the US Mission to the UN for their comment -- noting that the UK had provided one. As Inner City Press noted, that might be OK for the United Kingdom -- but what about the US, including in light of the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which provides for example:

It is the sense of Congress that—

 (1) the United States Government should condemn the conscription, forced recruitment, or use of children by governments, paramilitaries, or other organizations;

 (2) the United States Government should support and, to the extent practicable, lead efforts to establish and uphold international standards designed to end the abuse of human rights described in paragraph (1);

  There are prohibitions on funding which can only be overridden for formal, public findings by the President. Given all this, Inner City Press on February 4 again asked the two spokespeople for the US Mission to the UN its January 30 question: "could the US provide aid to a non-state group, the FSA and its affiliates, which the UN has found using child soldiers?"

  The New York Times, saying that the child soldiers report was "quietly presented to the Security Council last week," had a quote from the State Department. Why was the report, and this statement, delayed a full six days until the Geneva II talks were over?

  Even more cynically, Voice of America on whose Broadcasting Board of Governors US Secretary of State John Kerry serves, also ran a delayed / withheld story on the report; Reuters typically didn't bring up the US Child Soldiers Prevention Act  and claimed that the report was released on February 4, when even the Times said it was February 3 -- and see Inner City Press' January 29 story, here.

 On January 29, Inner City Press published additional quotes from the report, including that:

"Boys aged 12 to 17 were trained, armed, and used as combatants or to man checkpoints. For instance, a 15 year-old boy reported being recruited in April 2012 by the FSA in Tall Kalakh (Tartus governate), and participation in military operations.... Also indicative was the case of a 16 year-old boy from Homs who reportedly joined the FSA as a combatant. In March 2013, his family reported to the United Nations that he was still fighting with the group."

And is this boy still fighting with the FSA? There is more to be said about this UN report, but what steps will actually be taken on this UN report? Watch this site.


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