Sound and fury, signifying nothing
THE UNITED Nations’ 70th General Assembly this week in New York was overshadowed by one issue: Syria.
The showdown between Russia and the West over the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the best way to fight Daesh was the focal event of the international pow-wow, pushing aside other perennial matters such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and Iran’s nuclear programme.
As a result, even the much-vaunted “bombshell” that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to drop in his speech seemed much more like a damp squib.
Proceedings were dominated by the arrival of a rare guest at the General Assembly: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The last time Mr Putin put in an appearance was at the 60th event. Back then, the Russian president made do with a five-minute greeting in which he praised the UN but had little else to say.
In the intervening decade, Mr Putin has transformed Russian foreign policy. His forces fought a war in Georgia in 2008, last year invaded and annexed Crimea and established strongholds in eastern Ukraine and, as a curtain-raiser for this week’s speech, deployed over 40 fighter-jets and attack helicopters to Syria.
In his speech on Monday, Mr Putin accused the West of causing a vacuum by intervening in the Middle East, which was filled with “extremists and terrorists”.
He made it clear that as far as Russia was concerned, the Assad regime is now the main bulwark against Daesh in Syria and that he would continue supporting it to the hilt.
An hour earlier, US President Barack Obama had given his speech in which he criticised “major powers” which say “weshouldsupport tyrants like Bashar al-Assad.”
He claimed that fighting Daesh could not include allowing Mr Assad to remain in power but he left open the possibility of a “managed transition”.
Despite the disparity between their speeches, the two presidents met later that evening in New York and the Obama administration said that “clarity” had been reached over Russia’s intentions in Syria and that the Pentagon would “open lines” to the Russian m i l i t a r y, e n s u r i n g t h a t t h e countries’ a i r - f o r c - e s , b o t h ostensibly operating a g a i n s t Daesh, could “deconflict”.
Twenty-four hours later, before the deconflicting had begun, Russia surprised the Americans by carrying out its first round of bombings — not on Daesh positions, but on more moderate rebel groups (including at least one being supplied by the US), killing at least 30 civilians in the process.
What was remarkable about Mr Obama’s speech was that it contained only f l e e t i ng mentions of his
main foreign Putin with Obama in New York policy, the Iranian nuclear deal, and not even one mention of another issue on which his administration had spent extensive resources: the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians.
It was a far cry from Mr Obama’s General Assembly speech in 2010 in which he focused on the issue and made the wishful prophecy that “next year we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the UN, an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.”
The absence of any mention of Israel and Palestine, which certainly was no coincidence, has led to speculation that Mr Obama has no appetite for returning to the conflict in the last 15 months of his presidency.
MrAbbas’sspeechonWednesdaywas trailed in advance as a “bombshell”, but while it was undoubtedly fiery, included very little of substance.
Much was made of his announcement that “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power” and that the Palestinians will “no longer continue to be bound” by the Oslo Accords. In reality, however, it is unclear how this changes anything on the ground as Mr Abbas did not announce the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority or the end of security coordination with Israel. It seems that the status quo will remain.
In the absence of any other substantial achievement, Mr Abbas could at least console himself after his speech in the first ever raising of the Palestinian flag at the UN.
Mr Abbas’s statement on the Oslo agreements did not elicit a specific response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. His spokesman said the speech was “deceitful and encourages incitement and lawlessness in the Middle East”.
Mr Netanyahu was due to address the General Assembly on Thursday.
The70th General Assembly wasovershadowed byonemajor issue: Syria
Abbas addressing the UN General Assembly on Wednesday