UN crisis meeting on Syria: no safe havens, no agreement to act

A Turkish appeal for the establishment of safe zones in Syria got little support in a divided Security Council. France and Britain touted an international effort to raise humanitarian-aid funds.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
William Hague, (l.), UK Foreign Minister, and Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, listens during a meeting on Syria in the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. Turkey's foreign minister urged the Security Council on Thursday to set up a safe zone in Syria to protect thousands of civilians fleeing the civil war.

A deeply divided UN Security Council went through the motions of a meeting on Syria Thursday, but the inability to address even the deteriorating humanitarian crisis suggests the international community remains far away from any role in ending Syria’s intensifying civil war.

France and Britain announced new funds to address what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said “no one can now deny… is a humanitarian crisis.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country and France would convene an international ministerial meeting “in the coming weeks” to solicit more humanitarian aid for Syria and to coordinate action with UN humanitarian and aid agencies.

But such individual initiatives only served to underscore the inertia of a Security Council divided between the detractors and supporters of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The idea of establishing a partial no-fly zone over Syria and creating safe havens for hundreds of thousands of civilians uprooted by the fighting – a proposal promoted by Turkey – garnered little enthusiasm.

Speaking to reporters before the meeting, Mr. Fabius and Mr. Hague put Mr. Assad on notice that military action to create a safe zone inside Syria remains a possibility. But UN officials warned that such a step would require considerable study and planning.

"Such proposals raise serious questions and require careful and critical consideration," UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told the Security Council meeting.

The State Department on Thursday further dampened prospects for any rapid establishment of safe havens inside Syria, saying the US preference for the time being is to focus on humanitarian needs and planning for “the day after” Assad’s fall from power.

But US officials are hinting that the US is already working with Syrians in areas inside the country that some are referring to as de-facto safe zones – for example, in providing training to civilians seeking to maintain utilities and other services in areas that the Assad regime no longer governs.

Fabius suggested in a post-meeting press conference that France is doing the same, saying that France is “paying attention to the areas that have been liberated.”

France, which holds the council’s rotating presidency this month, called the meeting at ministerial level in an effort to signal the gravity of the crisis and the need for international action. The UN says that more than 200,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, while some aid groups say the number is closer to 300,000. As many as 2.5 million Syrians are now “internally displaced,” having deserted their home villages and neighborhoods.

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, which are bearing the brunt of a mounting refugee crisis, attended the meeting. But US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Russian and Chinese counterparts stayed away.

The US was cool to the idea of a high-level meeting, having already announced in July that the council’s inability to take action on Syria meant that it would look outside the council for international partners. The US had joined Britain and France in July for a third try at a Security Council resolution condemning Mr. Assad and threatening him with sanctions, but Russia and China vetoed Syria action for the third time since Syria’s unrest began in March 2011.

Since then the US has deepened its coordination with countries, including Turkey, which agree that Assad must go and are providing different types of assistance to Syria’s rebels.

But the US is not shutting the door on an eventual return to the Security Council. Secretary Clinton leaves Washington Friday for an Asia trip that will include stops in both Beijing and eastern Russia, where she will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. She is expected to address Syria with the Chinese and with Mr. Lavrov, State Department officials say.

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