With news of a horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria, the Security Council is holding an emergency meeting today. If past is prologue, the following things will probably happen: First, the Council will issue a statement unanimously condemning the attack and calling for an investigation. In the meantime, the United States, France and the United Kingdom will begin working on a resolution that contains tough language–perhaps even the threat of sanctions. Then, in the near future, those countries may call for a vote on the sanctions resolution. And then, the Russians (possibly along with the Chinese) will veto the resolution.
How can I be so sure?
This very thing happened just five weeks ago. On February 28, the Trump administration faced its first key test of Syria diplomacy at the United Nations when it co-sponsored a resolution calling for sanctions against Syrian government officials believed to be responsible for prior chemical weapons attacks. (The resolution also banned the export of chlorine to Syria and imposed restrictions on the sale of helicopters to the regime.) That resolution went down in flames–and with it the prospect for accountability for chemical weapons attacks — when Russia and China cast a double veto.
Now, five weeks later, the Syrian government is once again believed to have used chemical weapons against its own citizens. President Trump responded by blaming his predecessor, saying “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.” But it is the Trump administration that will now face a key test. If Russia continues to cast its veto in defense of its Syrian allies, then we can be sure that the Security Council will remain as paralyzed on Syria during the Trump administration as it was during the prior six years.
UPDATE: This is all happening much faster than I expected. The USA, France and UK have already drafted a resolution that may go to a vote soon. The resolution calls for a full investigation of the incident by an entity known as the “Joint Investigative Mechanism” which is a UN body established after the first major chemical weapons attack in 2013. The resolution also threatens sanctions against those involved in the attack.
UPDATE II: It appears were are headed for a showdown. The Russian UN ambassador explicitely rejected the idea of a new resolution. (He even called it “your” resolution. If a vote happens in the near future a veto is likely. Meanwhile, US Ambassador Nikki Haley (unlike her boss) cast blame on Russia for protecting the Syrian government. “The truth is that Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace,” she said. Adding “how many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Haley also not-so-subtly suggested that the USA may circumvent the Security Council in the face of a Russian veto and take unilateral action. “When the UN consistently fails to act collectively there are times in the lives of states when we are compelled to take our own actions,” she said.