syria war refugee siege united nations

On the day last week that the UN Security Council met to discuss humanitarian access in Syria, the main gates of its New York headquarters were fastened shut, with diplomats told that a snowstorm had made it too 'dangerous' to enter. Instead, they were ordered to make a ten-block detour along icy sidewalks that seemed even more treacherous.

There are times when the UN can be frustratingly bureaucratic and dysfunctional. But the impasse in the Security Council right now owes more to disagreements between the member states than organisational inertia. The 15-member body is the sum of its parts, and when those parts work against each other, as they are at the moment, gridlock ensues.

At issue currently is a resolution drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan that demands an end to the besiegement of Syrian cities, a halt to indiscriminate shelling by the Assad regime, and humanitarian pauses to allow for the delivery of aid (across Syria's borders if necessary). It also condemns what it calls 'increased terrorist attacks' and demands that all foreign fighters withdraw from Syria.

It is precisely the kind of binding resolution backed by the threat of sanctions that the UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos would like to see. For fourteen months, she negotiated humanitarian access in the Old City of Homs, which secured the evacuation of 1400 people. But Homs accounts for just 2% of the 250,000 Syrians who are currently besieged, mainly by the Assad regime but also by opposition forces. Those trapped people do not have another fourteen months to wait, and desperately need humanitarian aid immediately.

For the Australian mission, the draft resolution is the product of months of work.

Last October, seeking to harness the momentum from the chemical weapons resolution that was passed in a rare moment of unanimity, Australia successfully pushed for a Security Council presidential statement on humanitarian access that drew Russia's support.  Australia's UN ambassador Gary Quinlan hoped then that the presidential statement, a toothless document, would eventually become a full-blown resolution. Now he hopes that moment has finally come.

The P3 powers (America, Britain and France) are pushing hard for the resolution, having shelved it in the run-up to Geneva 2 for fear of alienating Russia and thus complicating the task of bringing the warring sides to the negotiating table in Switzerland. With the humanitarian situation worsening at an alarming rate, and with the Geneva talks having collapsed, they are pressing for the Security Council to act. The war actually intensified during the Geneva talks. The aerial bombardment of Alleppo has made these past few weeks some of the bloodiest of the war.

In a re-run of previous impasses over Syria, Russia remains implacably opposed to the wording of the Australian-sponsored draft. It complains that it is one-sided and would provide a pretext for military intervention, even though the resolution is not backed by the threat of force. Nor does it adequately address rising terrorism within Syria, according to Moscow. It has come up with a resolution of its own, with terrorism its main focus.

Within the privacy of the Security Council (many of its sessions are held behind closed doors) there have been fiery exchanges. Last week, Russia's permanent representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, denounced the resolution as a PR stunt designed to humiliate Russia. Angrily he read out a series of headlines stating that Russia would veto a humanitarian resolution, even though the very news reports he quoted were written following a briefing he gave to correspondents covering the UN.

Western diplomats stress they are not looking for a Russian veto. They are clamorous for a meaningful resolution. Samantha Powers, America's ambassador to the UN, says there has to be a strong resolution or there will be no resolution. But saving the resolution from a Russian veto will require compromise.

In Washington, meanwhile, President Obama has asked his advisors to come up with new policy options, which speaks of the administration's Syria malaise, especially now that the diplomatic track in Geneva has run into a brick wall.

The worry for UN officials is not just Russian obstructionism, but Moscow's lack of decisive influence on the Assad regime. In talks with Russian diplomats in Damascus, UN humanitarian officials often receive a sympathetic hearing but are told there is only so much Moscow can do. There are limits, it seems, to Russian leverage. The failure of Geneva 2 has demonstrated that, too.

In her office on the 33rd floor of the UN headquarters, Valerie Amos, Britain's former High Commissioner in Canberra, is growing increasingly exasperated as she studies maps of Syria with huge swathes of the country shaded in red, representing the areas under siege. When, three years ago, she started negotiating with the Assad regime, one million people were in need of humanitarian assistance. Now that figure is nine million.

Photo by Flickr user FreedomHouse.