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Friday 24 January 2020

'Cold War is back with a vengeance,' says UN chief - as he issues warning over Syria escalation

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres

Mythili Sampathkumar

THE United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said the ”Cold war is back with a vengeance”, as he issues a warning that the world is at risk of ”full-blown military escalation” over the latest suspected chemical attack in Syria.

Speaking during the second meeting of the Security Council this week on the conflict in Syria and possible missile strikes by the West, Mr Guterres said: “Increasing tensions and the inability to reach a compromise in the establishment of an accountability mechanism threaten to lead to a full-blown military escalation” if parties cannot figure out a way to agree on how to investigate the claims of a 7 April chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Douma during which 60 people died and up to a 1,000 were injured.

Mr Guterres said: "The Cold War is back with a vengeance, but with a difference. The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present."

In a moment of hope, the Security Council adopted a resolution for a humanitarian pause, he said, adding that “unfortunately, no such pause actually took place” as Syrians continue to face a “litany of horrors”.

Russia, the main opposition to setting up an independent investigation mechanism within the UN, has said the US and its allies are simply using this diplomatic “chaos” as a “pretext” for an attack on Syria.

The Secretary-General reiterated his support for an investigation being carried out by the Organisation on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), who sent one team already in the conflict zone with another expected to be there in the next few days. However, Russia has argued specifically over what US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has called an “attribution” mechanism, an investigation to figure out which party actually carried out the supposed chemical weapons attack.

President Donald Trump sits with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres on Monday (AP)
President Donald Trump sits with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres on Monday (AP)

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya turned the focus to the “bellicose rhetoric” of the US and Mr Trump’s hint at a possible missile strike akin to what took place last April after a chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, adding that “not only the use of force, the threat of force, flies in the face of the UN charter”. He spared no words of caution to US allies as well, saying: “There are those with tacit consent that are...possibly becoming complicit in a possible military misadventure”.

Mr Nebenzya said the US was, as a result, “unworthy” of a permanent seat on the Security Council. At the last Syria meeting, both Ms Haley and Karen Pierce, UK Ambassador to the UN, had questioned the “credibility” of Russia’s membership to the group as well.

“The right to sabre-rattle ... Does not exist in international law,” Mr Nebenzya forcefully said, adding that setting up the investigation and presenting resolutions in front of the Security Council the US and its allies know will not pass are just part smokescreens – the real goal is to “oust the Syrian government”.

He brought up issues of the Iraq war and the US using “test tubes” as evidence of weapons of mass destruction and justification for defying the Security Council. It is Russia’s contention that the Douma attack was simply staged by “anti-government forces, forces who have an interest in the development of such events” and the US is supporting “terrorists” against the legal government of Syria.

He said neither the residents of Douma nor Russian investigators found evidence of an attack and had “weighty justification to believe, we have even information to believe, that what took place is a provocation of participation of certain countries intelligence services”.

Ms Haley, in a response statement said: “I’m in awe, Vasily, of how you say that with a straight face.”

As US Defence Secretary James Mattis has also repeatedly said, Russia has failed to guarantee the removal of chemical weapons in Syria, and under a 2013 agreement in fact “it did the opposite” Ms Haley said. The US estimated that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons 50 times in Syria – with public estimates as high as 200, Ms Haley added.

“It is Russia alone that used its veto six times to prevent the condemnation of use of chemical weapons in Syria,” she noted. “We must not stay silent in the face of chemical weapons use in our own time,” Ms Haley said as she recounted the horrors of chemical weapons use during the First and Second World Wars. No country can be allowed to use chemical weapons with impunity,” she added.

Though she agreed with Mr Guterres’ point that there is probably not a single military solution to the Syrian conflict, “at one point you have to do something”, she said. She did not address Mr Trump’s tweets and public statements threatening to attack, however. “Our president has not yet made a decision about possible action in Syria. But should the US and our allies decide to act in Syria, it will be in defence of a principle on which we all agree. All nations and all people will be harmed if we allow [Mr] Assad to normalise the use of chemical weapons,” she said. Mr Trump tweeted the attack could happen “soon or not so soon at all”.

France has said it has proof that Mr Assad’s government used chemical weapons in the attack in Douma. France’s ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre, told the Security Council that the Syrian government’s decision to use chemical weapons again meant they had “reached a point of no return”.

The world must provide a “robust, united and steadfast response”, he said. Since 2015 France has carried out air strikes against Islamic State in Syria as part of allied forces linked to the US-led coalition, conducting about 5 per cent of total coalition air missions.

Mr Guterres urged all members that the “norms against chemical weapons must be held”. He had warned last year to “avoid the situation spiralling out of control – the exact situation we face today”.

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