Stalemate at the UN While Syria Slaughter Continues
Cowardice and moral bankruptcy on the part of the international community again on display.
Nearly 6000 Syrians have died during the 10-month revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including hundreds of children. In one of the worst single day outbursts of violence, which occurred on February 3rd, the death toll from shelling by Syrian security forces in the city of Homs alone exceeded 200.
In the midst of the escalating violence, the United Nations Security Council met in a special Saturday session on February 4th to address the crisis in Syria. It failed to take any action after Russia and China vetoed a resolution expressing moral support for the beleaguered Syrian people and endorsing a plan put forward by the Arab League to help them move peacefully beyond Assad towards democracy. The Security Council let the Syrian people down as Assad’s killing machine continues to massacre innocent civilians.
Last week started out with much fanfare. The Arab League’s secretary general and the prime minister of Qatar addressed the Security Council in person on January 31st to present the Arab League’s plan and ask for the Security Council’s endorsement.
“The government killing machine continues effectively unabated,” said Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani. “The hope of the Syrian people is in your hands,” he added.
“Do not let the Syrian people down in its plight,” said the Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several of her counterparts, including the foreign ministers of France and the United Kingdom, followed the presentation of the Arab League plan to the Security Council with their own supportive speeches.
In her stern address to the Council, Clinton harshly condemned the Syrian regime’s brutality against its citizens and urged full backing for the Arab League’s plan. “It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria,” Clinton told the Council. “The alternative - spurning the Arab League, abandoning the Syrian people, emboldening the dictator - would compound this tragedy, and would mark a failure of our shared responsibility, and shake the credibility of the United Nations Security Council.”
Russia and China had vetoed a prior resolution last October concerning the violence in Syria. Russia in particular has been running interference for its ally Assad, whose regime is a major customer for Russian weapons and has provided Russia with access to one of its ports.
Mindful of the fate of the prior resolution, which had been spearheaded by the West, Clinton reminded the Council that this time it was the Arab League taking the lead and asking the Council for its support:
So why is the Arab League here before this Security Council? Because they are seeking the support of the international community for a negotiated, peaceful political solution to this crisis and a responsible, democratic transition in Syria. And we all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé accused the Syrian regime of “crimes against humanity.” He added that the Arab League was offering the only viable plan to counter the violence and help facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy. “We have to take it,” Ambassador Juppé said.
However, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin made it clear in his own remarks on January 31st that Russia would oppose any Security Council resolution that attempted “to prescribe outcomes” for the Syrian regime.
In the days that followed these speeches, Morocco’s original draft resolution went through successive mark-ups that were circulated in an effort to reach a consensus among all the members of the Security Council. While China is reported to have proposed little during the informal discussions, Russia insisted upon and obtained a number of key concessions. Bringing Russia on board was the key to passage of the resolution. China, in this case, was viewed as joined at the hip with Russia and likely to follow whatever Russia ultimately decided to do.
The Arab League plan proposed specific steps to successfully transition to democracy. Under the plan, Syrian President Assad would first cede power to his vice president, followed by the formation of a national unity government with the opposition and ultimately a new constitution and new elections. The original text of the Security Council resolution laid out these same steps. However, by the end of the week, these steps were removed from the final draft of the resolution as a concession to Russia.
The original proposed resolution expressed the Security Council’s “grave concern at the continued transfer of weapons into Syria which fuels the violence” and called on the member states “to take necessary steps to prevent such flow of arms.”
The final draft removed any reference to weapons as a further concession to Russia.
The final draft also made clear that nothing in the resolution authorizes the use of any military force to accomplish its purpose.
Russia even managed to promote itself in the resolution as a partner with the Arab League in the search for a peaceful solution. The final resolution draft noted specifically “the offer of the Russian Federation to host a meeting in Moscow, in consultation with the League of Arab States.”
Everything appeared to be on track by the end of last week to finally bring Russia on board, until Russia decided at the last moment to introduce some amendments with a few revisions to the resolution’s wording. That is where the United States, France, the United Kingdom and others on the Council drew a line in the sand. They decided that Russia had gone too far in trying to weaken the resolution’s text. Precious time was being wasted while civilians were dying in Syria.
As she entered the chamber for the special Saturday February 4th meeting of the Security Council, the U.S. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters that Russia’s amendments were “unacceptable.” She and her colleagues from France and the United Kingdom insisted that, regardless of what Russia would do, the Security Council must vote without delay on the final draft version of the resolution proposed by Morocco and sponsored by sixteen other member states, including several other Arab countries and Turkey. That resolution would not include the Russian amendments.
Ironically, as noted above, the final version of the draft resolution already contained many of the concessions that Russia had demanded, which were far more significant than its last-minute amendments that Rice and her colleagues found so objectionable.
More specifically, the Russian amendments added language calling “for all sections of the Syrian opposition to dissociate themselves from armed groups engaged in acts of violence and urges member-states and all those in a position to do so to use their influence to prevent continued violence by such groups.” Assad would be expected to pull out his military forces from the cities and towns “in conjunction with the end of attacks by armed groups.” The resolution would still say that the Council “[F]ully supports…the League of Arab States’ 22 January 2012 decision to facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system.” However, the Russian amendments would replace “in accordance with the timetable set out by the League of Arab States” with the words “takes into account” the Arab League timeline.
The Russians were continuing to move the goalposts and evidently trying to delay action on a final resolution through seemingly trivial amendments. But, in the end, all that really mattered was passage of a resolution - any resolution - that expressed the international community’s strong moral support for the Syrian people and endorsement of the Arab League’s constructive role in trying to lead a regional diplomatic solution. Nothing in the Russian amendments would have materially undermined that objective. The UN has no further part to play other than to provide purely humanitarian assistance. International military intervention on the Libyan model is out of the question, as it should be. Economic sanctions, to the extent they have any real effect, are something that individual countries and regional groups can implement on their own, without any UN imprimatur.
The Obama administration could have accepted Russia’s amendments on the condition that Russia would agree (along with China) to an immediate vote on Saturday without a veto, as a demonstration that the world community was not turning a blind eye while Syrian civilians continued to be slaughtered on the very day that the Security Council was meeting. There was no guarantee that Russian and China would have gone along, but it was a gamble worth taking to keep the resolution alive.
Instead, after more than an hour of informal consultations among the Security Council members that included Russia and China, no agreement on the Russian amendments was reached. Led by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, a decision was made to push for a vote on the resolution immediately without Russia’s amendments. The Obama administration elected to act tough at the wrong time over trivial wording changes.
Predictably, Russia and China vetoed the resolution and it was thereby defeated, even though thirteen members of the Council voted in favor of the resolution.
Susan Rice exclaimed with righteous indignation how “disgusted” the United States was that two members of the Council were willing to “sell out the Syrian people.” She emphasized in her statement to the Council following the vote that the vetoed resolution had taken care of all of the principal concerns raised by its opponents. The resolution, she pointed out, expressly ruled out any contemplation of international military force. Moreover, there was no mention in the resolution of economic sanctions or any arms embargo.
Nevertheless, Rice said, Russia and China prevented the Council from providing international backing for the Arab League’s peace plan to bring about an end to the violence in Syria and facilitate concrete steps towards a democratic process designed by the Syrian people themselves.
Rice blasted what she called Russia’s “wrecking amendments.“ Referring to Russia and China, she warned that “any further bloodshed will be on their hands.”
Rice vastly overstated her case by not seeing the forest for the trees. Russia’s amendments were annoying speed bumps, but hardly constituted “wrecking” roadblocks. Any further bloodshed will continue to be on Assad’s hands, with or without a Security Council resolution.
All the United Nations could have done was to shine with laser-like focus the world’s condemnation upon Assad’s shameful brutality. Passage of a Security Council resolution, even with Russia’s amendments, would have accomplished that singular purpose. Instead, the failure to pass any resolution at all, despite the urgent pleas of the Arab League, brought further shame on the United Nations itself and gave further lie to the Obama administration’s supposed “reset” of American relations with Russia.
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