UNITED NATIONS -- For the first time the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on humanitarian aid to Syria, with its backers successfully bringing the issue to a vote before the Winter Olympics in Sochi ended.
Russia (along with China) did not cast a veto on a Syrian measure as it did three times since the war began. The resolution was the first binding measure on relief aid in the three-year-old conflict that has killed an estimated 136,000 people, turned 2.9 million into refugees, and left a quarter of a million Syrians without adequate food, hospitals or schools. (See text.)
The new document, approved by a 15-0 vote, demands the government allow humanitarian agencies to deliver supplies and stop aerial bombardments against civilians. It told extremist anti-government groups stop terrorizing Syrians and condemned foreign fighters.
Bad publicity during the Sochi games was not the sole reason Russia, Syria's main ally, supported the resolution, diplomats said. Some speculated that Moscow was not pleased with the Damascus' government's stalling in the collapsed Geneva peace talks.
But Western and Arab nations pushed for a vote this week to force Moscow to take a position before the Oympics ended on Sunday. Russian envoys called the timing of the meeting, chaired by Lithuanian Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaitė, a coincidence.
Syria, which seems to have the upper hand militarily, is exercising its authority, rarely engaging in the Geneva dialogue and even delaying its promised timetable on getting rid of chemical weapons.
Australia, Jordan, Luxembourg
The resolution was sponsored by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, whose ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, noted his country of 6 million had 600,000 Syrian refugees, one out of 10 people, at a cost of $1.7 billion in 2013 and an estimated $2.8 billion cost this year. (see video of meeting)
Reciting further details of the carnage, Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan said:
The Syrian military must cease their systematic and indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The devastating aerial bombing campaign in Aleppo that has seen a further 500 000 people displaced must end. The use of barrel bombs -- a weapon designed to create civilian terror and cause maximum injury to civilians -- must cease immediately.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin reflected Syria's view of the conflict: that opposition to President Bashir Al-Assad was akin to terrorism. He spoke of the shooting of Syrian soldiers in the suburbs of Damascus and the many steps the government took on supplying polio vaccinations. He said he hoped the Security Council would adopt a separate draft on anti-terrorism.
But British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant immediately contradicted "my Russian colleague" on Syrian actions since October when the Council issued a non-binding statement on humanitarian aid.
The reality on the ground tells an entirely different story. Here are now 9.3 million people in need, a rise of more than one-third since 2 October. Over the same period, the number of internally displaced has risen by 50 percent to 6.5 million people. And an estimated 140,000 people have been killed since the crisis began an increase of 40 percent since six months ago.
Russia vote a secret
Until late Friday, diplomats were not sure how Moscow would vote. In a compromise with Russia, the resolution did not threaten sanctions but promised unspecified further measures. It asks UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report every 30 days on implementation and expressed the Security Council's intention to take "further steps" if aid is denied.
All references to referring perpetrators to the International Criminal Court were deleted although the resolution says those who guilty of abuses in Syria "must be brought to justice." It condemns those affiliated with Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters but deleted specific references to Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters and Iran's Quds Force.
In contrast to Russia, China's ambassador, Liu Jieyi, asked for all sides to honor the resolution "including across conflict lines and across borders." Unlike Moscow, he did not make terrorism the center of his arguments.
Valerie Amos, the UN emergency relief coordinator, has been extremely vocal about barriers hindering emergency supplies. Aid convoys have been barred from entering across borders and those that do are subjected to repeated checkpoints, some of them forced to go to Damascus first.
"Diplomacy of hyenas"
In his speech to the Security Council, Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said it was hypocritical that some council members were supplying weapons to opposition forces across the same borders they want open for humanitarian relief. He called the session a "diplomacy of hyenas" rather than international humanitarian law
Rwanda's UN ambassador, Eugene Gasana, wondered why the resolution did not prohibit Council members from supplying weapons to fighters. Nigeria's Joy Ogwu also asked why arms transfers continued to flow into Syria.
Russia supplies the Syrian government with weapons. The United States and some European nations plan to provide arms and training to moderate opposition fighters to equip them against government forces and extremist rebel groups.
Who's to blame? Any magic wands?
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power described Syria as "a country with countless hungry children, untreated infections, shrapnel wounds, and lost limbs; a country where some mothers are denied the nourishment they require to sustain the infants that they hold in their arms."
Given its track record to date, the Syrian regime can be trusted only to deny what it has done and lie about what it will do. Accordingly, I call upon all Council members, and all members of the international community, to join in pressing Damascus -- and any actor who fails to comply -- to fulfill the terms of this resolution on a comprehensive and urgent basis.
Asked about implementation, Power told reporters no one was naïve enough to believe the resolution would produce a magic wand. (see video)
"It's not like, you know, the fairies come out of the sky, and the angels descend, and suddenly, implementation happens. It happens because those of us who have leverage on various parties on the ground use that leverage."