Syria toxic gas inquiry to end after Russia again blocks UN renewal

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya votes against a bid to renew an international inquiry into chemical weapons attacks in Syria, during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, U.S., on Friday. (REUTERS)
Updated 18 November 2017
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Syria toxic gas inquiry to end after Russia again blocks UN renewal

UNITED NATIONS: An international investigation into who is to blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria will end on Friday after Russia blocked for the third time in a month attempts at the United Nations to renew the inquiry, which Moscow has slammed as flawed.
In the past two years, the joint UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry has found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in an April 4 attack and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon. It blamed Daesh militants for using mustard gas.
Russia vetoed on Friday a Japanese-drafted UN Security Council resolution to extend the inquiry for one month. It was an eleventh-hour bid to buy more time for negotiations after Russia blocked US-drafted resolutions on Thursday and Oct. 24 to renew the investigation, which the council created in 2015.
Syrian ally Russia has cast 11 vetoes on possible Security Council action on Syria since the country’s civil war began in 2011. The Japanese draft received 12 votes in favor on Friday, while China abstained and Bolivia joined Russia to vote no.
After Friday’s vote, the council moved to closed-door discussions at the request of Sweden’s UN Ambassador Olof Skoog to “ensure we are absolutely convinced we have exhausted every avenue, every effort” to try and renew the investigation.
After a brief discussion, Italian UN Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi, council president for November, told reporters: “The council will continue to work in the coming hours and days, constructively, to find a common position.”
Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council earlier on Friday that the inquiry could only be extended if “fundamental flaws in its work” were fixed. He said that for the past two year the investigators had “rubber-stamped baseless accusations against Syria.”
The council voted on a rival Russian-drafted resolution on Thursday to renew the inquiry, but it failed after only garnering four votes in favor.
A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, France, Russia, Britain or China to be adopted.
“Russia is wasting our time,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the council on Friday.
“Russia’s actions today and in recent weeks have been designed to delay, to distract and ultimately to defeat the effort to secure accountability for chemical weapons attacks in Syria,” Haley said.
While Russia agreed to the creation of the inquiry two years ago, it has consistently questioned its work and conclusions.
The April 4 sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of people prompted the United States to launch missiles on a Syrian air base. Haley warned on Thursday: “We will do it again if we must.”
Despite the public deadlock and war of words between the United States and Russia at the United Nations, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Thursday that President Donald Trump believed he could work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on issues like Syria.
Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States. 


A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

Updated 10 December 2018
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A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

  • Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition
  • The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government

BAGHDAD: A year since Iraq announced “victory” over the Daesh group, the country finds itself in the throes of political and economic crises left unresolved during the long battle against militants.
Unified against the common menace of Daesh, Iraq’s political elites are now at loggerheads over the drawn-out formation of a cabinet as the threat of renewed popular protests looms.
Iraq is no stranger to instability. It fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, then a conflict over Kuwait followed by a crippling international embargo and the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A sectarian war ensued, capped in 2014 by Daesh’s devastating sweep across a third of the country.
Backed by a US-led international coalition, Iraqi troops and paramilitary forces battled the militants for three years, until Baghdad finally declared it had won in December 2017.
After decades of nearly back-to-back wars, Iraq’s decision-makers are now forced to face deep-rooted dilemmas left festering for years.
“In Iraq you’ve seen many ‘missions accomplished’,” said Renad Mansour, senior fellow at Chatham House in London.
“But as usual, the much more challenging victory is the political victory — which has always been left for another day.”
Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition.
Then-prime minister Haider Al-Abadi failed to hold on to his position despite claiming credit for victory, as people turned to populist parties who tapped anger over corruption.
The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government.

In October, Abdel Mahdi managed to fill 14 of the cabinet’s 22 posts, but repeated efforts to hold a parliamentary vote on the remaining eight, including the key interior and defense ministries, have failed.
“The distribution of power, the race to acquire as many government positions as possible under the guise of real competition between parties — that is at the root of the problem,” Iraqi political analyst Jassem Hanoun told AFP.
“Iraq is still living in a transition period, without political stability or a clear administrative vision for the country.”
As the process drags on, observers have wondered whether Abdel Mahdi could step down, further destabilising a country just getting back on its feet.
“Withdrawal is an option,” a source close to the government said, adding that Abdel Mahdi “has his resignation letter in his back pocket.”
“Only if the political situation gets significantly worse can I see him taking it out of his pocket and using it,” the source said.
But the thorny issues facing Iraq extend beyond the capital.
Much of the country remains in ruins after three years of ferocious fighting, including large swathes of one-time Daesh capital Mosul and the northern Sinjar region.
An international summit in Kuwait in February gathered around $30 billion in pledges for Iraq’s reconstruction — less than a third of what Baghdad hoped to receive.
More than 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many languishing in camps, and 8 million require humanitarian aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“If this is what ‘victory’ looks like, then there is little to celebrate for millions of Iraqis still haunted by the crimes of the IS and the long war to eliminate it,” said NRC’s head Jan Egeland.

Violence has dropped across Iraq, according to the United Nations, which recorded the lowest casualty figures in six years in November with 41 civilians killed.
But the threat of hit-and-run attacks lingers.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that while the total number of Daesh attacks in Iraq had dropped in 2018, those against government targets had increased compared to 2017.
Observers are also worried that the bitter squabbles among Iraqi’s political forces could turn violent.
“Because of the divisions among the parties, anything is possible,” Hanoun said.
One scenario would be a conflict among the country’s competing Shiite Muslim factions, which he said would be a “disaster.”
But another major fault line divides Iraq’s entrenched politicians and an increasingly frustrated public.
Deadly protests in the summer of 2017 saw tens of thousands turn out over unemployment, a lack of public services, and accusations of corruption.
Rampant power cuts mean millions of Iraqis have just a few hours of state-provided electricity per day. The country is ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Protest leaders have threatened a return to the streets if these issues, as well as the political stalemate, are not resolved.
“There’s certainly a conflict within the Shiite camp, but the biggest conflict will be between the people and the whole system,” said Mansour.
“Summertime will be a test for Abdel Mahdi.”