Russia Angles on Syria Security Council Resolution

The Russian Federation is finally engaging at the UN Security Council on Syria, but the cause for joy is muted. When news broke last Thursday that Russia would be introducing a new draft resolution on the situation in Syria, it seemed as though the international pressure on Moscow over its support for the Assad regime in Syria had paid off. Many hoped that this would be the turning point that finally showed President Bashar al-Assad that the atrocities of his government would not be tolerated. This is not the case.

The draft resolution as a whole is less ambitious that many in the international community had hoped. The text seems to mimic rather closely Russia’s last attempt to mediate the crisis back in August. While the language used is slightly tougher on the Syrian government, it still equates the violence of the government with that of protesters. This is highly problematic, as the uprising has resulted in over 5,000 killed so far in Syria. I somehow doubt that those rallying in Homs and other Syrian cities have killed 2,500 government forces, despite recent claims otherwise.

Unfortunately, the world’s delay in taking action, and in particular the stonewalling in the Security Council, has managed to at least somewhat legitimize Russia’s argument. The Free Syrian Army, while not stated by name in the text but instead referred to as “extremists”, is clearly on the mind of Russian diplomats at the United Nations. To not condemn the violence caused by the FSA would undermine the legitimacy of the Council; to equate their acts with those of the Assad regime, though, is wrong. Reports from Syria indicate that the FSA so far has only attacked government and military installations and convoys in the name of protecting civilians; loyalist forces have systematically opened fire on unarmed protestors and summarily executed soldiers who refused orders.

The fact remains, as well, that there is no mention of sanctions here, nor will there be. Russia has many legitimate business interests in Syria. As such, arms sales from the former to the latter are off the table completely as part of a resolution. Further, despite welcoming the League of Arab States’ plan of action, the draft includes no mention at all of the economic sanctions placed upon Syria by the Arab League, either. The Europeans on the UNSC would do well to at least have them mentioned in a perambulatory clause to grant them further legitimacy, and signal to the Assad government that the UNSC will support regional and unilateral efforts to pressure the regime.

Despite calls from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay, any mention of the potential for International Criminal Court charges towards any members of the regime is also left out of the original draft. Pillay’s voice adds to the earlier report from the UN Human Rights Council listing a multitude of human rights abuses commit by the regime. As Arab League monitors finally enter Syria, an independent on the ground assessment of the full toll on the civilian population may be forthcoming, despite worrying choices in the team’s leadership.

Also of note is the amount of anger the Russian mission still maintains over what it sees as overstretch of the bounds of SC/1973, which authorized protection of civilians in Libya. Operative clause 11 in the draft states:

11. Decides that nothing in this resolution shall be interpreted as an authorization of any sort of military interference in Syria by anyone;

It’s not at all normal Security Council procedure to stress a negative when dealing with authorization for the use of force. Further, the draft fails to cite Chapter VII, a clause that resolutions containing enforcement measures of any sort include.

With the clock winding down on 2011, it is unsure whether the Russian Federation will press for a vote before the year before its Presidency of the Security Council for the month of December, ends. The incoming Security Council members taking their seats on January 1 may be more accommodating towards Western demands that the text be strengthened before a vote. Further, it would be hard for the US, UK, and France to explain a veto on this text, as the Council has so far not taken any binding action whatsoever on Syria.

Still, it is somewhat encouraging that Russia is engaging on Syria at all in the UNSC. And having been proposed by Russia, we won’t see the typical watering down effect that normally takes place following the introduction of European or US-introduced resolutions. There’s literally nowhere this draft can go but up. Hopefully.