Lessons in statecraft from the U.N. high table

The draft resolution on Syria is a victory for Russia and dents the image of the U.S. as the steering force in the Security Council

Within hours of the time of writing, the United Nations Security Council will pass a resolution that not only paves the way for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons but also sets its crisis on track for a politically mediated settlement. For all intents and purposes, this will be the first time the Council would adopt substantive measures to tackle Syria, since conflict first broke out two years ago. The Council’s permanent members have signed off on the draft resolution, and its contents were discussed at a full-house meeting of all UNSC members on Thursday night. The UNSC draft resolution, which will be cleared without amendment, represents an unmitigated victory for Russian diplomacy: Moscow has extracted every pound of flesh from its bargain with the United States to destroy Syria’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and more.

Separating the issues

The draft resolution was thrashed out by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in New York. First, Mr. Lavrov ensured the draft would not call on the Council to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court — this provision, which France was especially keen to incorporate, would have led to the trial and likely conviction of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the commission of war crimes.

Second, Russia has succeeded in convincing the U.N. Security Council that the use of chemical weapons in Syria and its ongoing humanitarian crisis are to be treated separately. The U.S. and its allies intended this exercise to condemn Mr. Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons. The West also sought to introduce Chapter VII measures under the U.N. Charter to threaten the Syrian regime into disarmament. The use of WMDs in Syria provided a “legitimate” pretext to intervene militarily, and thus tip the balance of power in favour of the rebels fighting the Assad regime. Mr. Lavrov first undercut this plan in Geneva earlier this month — the “framework agreement” signed between him and Mr. Kerry ensured Chapter VII measures would only be invoked only after non-compliance, and not as a tool to command Assad’s obedience. This went against French and British efforts at the U.N. Security Council, but once Mr. Lavrov had won over Mr. Kerry, there was little the Europeans could do.

In negotiations, Russia conceded the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a “threat to international peace and security” – under the U.N. Charter, such a threat is a sine qua non for the Council to approve the use of force. But Mr. Lavrov’s deft diplomatic manoeuvring has virtually ensured intervention in Syria is all but off the table for now. The same draft that suggests the use of WMDs is a grave threat to international security also stresses “the only solution to the current crisis” in Syria is political reconciliation based on the Geneva Communiqué of 2012. What’s more, the draft resolution now reads like a general denunciation of the use and proliferation of chemical weapons, not just in Syria but “anywhere in the world.” The resolution also suggests “individuals” responsible for the use of WMDs be “held accountable.” Any attempt to prosecute the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons will find it next to impossible to prove Mr. Assad himself authorised these attacks.

If the Syrian President has been let off the hook for now, Russia has also managed to turn the spotlight on the Syrian rebels. The draft resolution requires “all Syrian parties to work closely” with the U.N. to “arrange for the security” of the WMD inspection team. The provision effectively mandates a ceasefire in Syria, which the rebels are extremely reluctant to support given that violence has now become their only bargaining chip. The draft resolution also addresses the possibility of chemical weapons being transferred to the rebels and requires all States to refrain from the same.

It was clear from the beginning there was little appetite for military intervention in Syria both in the international community as well as domestic peoples in the West. But what explains the dramatic turnaround in Russia’s fortunes? For the most part of the last two years, Moscow, along with China has been branded by the West as a “persistent objector” at the Security Council, standing in the way of resolving this humanitarian crisis. But now, Russia has been able to push through a draft resolution that ensures Mr. Assad will be in power for the conceivable future, while slapping down all of the western proposals at once. What gives?

American actions

The answer does not have to do with Russia’s sudden popularity as much as the negative publicity that the U.S. has attracted at this year’s U.N. General Assembly meetings. The UNGA opened with a blistering attack by Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff on the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance programmes, terming them a “breach of international law.” Her speech has resonated widely with heads of state and foreign ministers in attendance. At the Council, Pakistan sharply criticised U.S. drone attacks on its north-western border and suggested they ran “counterproductive” to the objective of defeating terrorism.

To complicate matters for the West, Iran, a major ally of the Syrian regime, has moderated its defence of Bashar al-Assad, choosing instead to oppose military intervention for its disastrous spillover effects. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has even expressed his country’s willingness to join the Geneva-II conference to initiate political dialogue among Syria’s warring constituents.

In this climate, the U.S. has found it extremely difficult to push its brief on Syria through the Security Council. The Obama administration’s bluff on military intervention has been called, and its alienating posture on Iran has cut no ice at the U.N. Above all, the chickens from its intrusive, worldwide surveillance programme have come to roost in New York. The draft resolution on Syria is a severe setback to its reputation as the primary agenda-setter in the Security Council.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 9:57:48 PM |

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