- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

NEW YORK The presidency of the U.N. Security Council rotates among its 15 members, with a new country taking the helm each month and no presidency in recent years will be more closely watched than Syria's, which began yesterday.
Syria won a two-year term on the council, starting Jan. 1, with overwhelming support from the international community and without opposition from the United States, despite Syria's position on the U.S. list of nations sponsoring terrorism.
But Syria's election was denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose spokesman called it "a real bad joke." American Jewish groups said it was absurd for a country accused of sponsoring terrorism to be dealing with the global fight against terror after September 11.
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe has repeatedly said that his country is opposed to terrorism, but he has also supported the right of people "under occupation," meaning the Palestinians, to fight for independence.
The United States, Britain, France, Russia and China are permanent council members with veto power. The other 10 members are elected to two-year terms.
Mr. Wehbe, the council president this month, has significant influence over the council's agenda while he holds the chair, and can delay discussion of some subjects and push pet issues.
For example, former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke focused on Africa during his presidency during the Clinton administration.
Diplomats said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa is expected to preside at an open council meeting on a comprehensive settlement for the Middle East. Syria would be part of that settlement because it wants the Golan Heights, which Israel captured during the 1967 Mideast War, returned in any peace deal.
Arab nations are debating the possibility of asking the council to send a mission to the Middle East, but Mr. Wehbe said that "this is still an idea in the air I don't know whether it will come down from the air, from the sky, or not."
Until this year, the council had been marginalized in Mideast peace efforts because Israel insisted that only direct negotiations with the Palestinians would lead to a solution.
Since the latest violence erupted in September 2000, the United States blocked efforts by the Palestinians to get the council to adopt a resolution until March.
Since then, the council has adopted four resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Syria repeatedly pushed for harsh condemnation of Israeli "war crimes" and "atrocities," but that language was always watered down. In the end, Syria approved two resolutions, abstained on one and was absent during the vote on the fourth.
One council diplomat said it was better that Syria wasn't in the president's chair during those often heated negotiations.

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