At the Security Council, Russia (Kind of) Endorses Regime Change in Syria

The Security Council issued a Presidential Statement on Syria today. This is different from a resolution in the sense that it does not carry the force of law, but Presidential Statements are significant for the fact that it requires the support of all 15 members to pass. This means that Russia approved the text (below).

“The Security Council recalls its Presidential Statement of 3 August 2011 and its Press Statement of 1 March 2012.

The Security Council expresses its gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria which has resulted in a serious human rights crisis and a deplorable humanitarian situation.

The Security Council expresses its profound regret at the death of many thousands of people in Syria.

The Security Council reaffirms its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.

The Security Council welcomes the appointment of Joint Special Envoy for the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan, following the General Assembly resolution A/RES/66/253 of 16 February 2012 and relevant resolutions of the League of Arab States.

The Security Council expresses its full support for the efforts of the Envoy to bring an immediate end to all violence and human rights violations, secure humanitarian access, and facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs, including through commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.

To this aim, the Security Council fully supports the initial six-point proposal submitted to the Syrian authorities, as outlined by the Envoy to the Security Council on 16 March 2012, to:

1) commit to work with the Envoy in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, and, to this end, commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy;

2) commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilize the country.

To this end, the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.

As these actions are being taken on the ground, the Syrian government should work with the Envoy to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.

Similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism;

3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level.

4) intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities, provide without delay through appropriate channels a list of all places in which such persons are being detained, immediately begin organising access to such locations and through appropriate channels respond promptly to all written requests for information, access or release regarding such persons;

5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them;

6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.

The Security Council calls upon the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and to implement fully and immediately his initial six-point proposal.

The Security Council requests the Envoy to update the Council regularly and in a timely manner on the progress of his mission. In the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate.”

Three quick reactions:

1) Russia Backs Down.  I added emphasis to the graph because the clause signals a very sharp departure from Russia’s prior position on the question of whether or not Bashar al Assad should be replaced. A few weeks ago, a Russia blocked a resolution that endorsed an Arab League plan that called for a democratic transition to take place. (The key difference is that the previous resolution also called for Assad to immediately step aside and appoint a deputy. This presidential statement does not.)  Still, Russia’s support for this presidential statement indicates that they are not doubling down on Assad. In fact, they are willing to countenance a post-Assad Syria.

2) Kofi Annan #FTW. Russia never wanted a special envoy for Syria. But the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for it, and Ban Ki Moon made the wise choice of appointing his very high profile and very competent predecessor. Annan did what Annan does best. His meeting with the Security Council last Friday was behind closed doors, but whatever he said must have done the trick because he was able to secure the backing of Russia. Without that backing, Annan’s job as special envoy would be impossible; Syria could just reject his entreaties without much consequence. Now that Annan is backed in his efforts by Moscow, his mission has a chance of success.

3) What’s next? As mentioned earlier, this is only a presidential resolution. But if Syria blatantly violates these very explicit wishes of the Council the next logical step is to threaten the regime with sanctions or an ICC referral. That requires a Security Council resolution. We are not at this stage yet, but Russia may loosen its objections to punitive measures against Assad if the instructions set forth in this Presidential Statement are ignored.