The very first Russia v. USA showdown over Syria is poised to take place at the United Nations in the next week. At issue is a resolution pending at the Security Council that would, among other things, sanction Syrian government officials responsible for the use of chemical weapons.
How Russia responds to this vote–and whether they cast a veto–will be a key test of whether or not the Trump administration is able to make diplomatic headway with Russia where the Obama administration failed.
Russia has staunchly opposed any punitive measures against Syria at the Security Council, casting six vetoes over six years to protect the Assad government from sanctions, asset freezes or scrutiny by the International Criminal Court. Each time the USA and its European allies sought to use the leverage of international sanctions against the Assad regime, they have been foiled by the Russian veto. (And sometimes, Russia is joined by China).
This week or next, Security Council members are likely to vote on a new measure that punishes Syrian government officials and entities believed to be behind three chemical weapons attacks that occurred over two years ago. (The resolution also singles out ISIS members for one chlorine attack in August 2015.)
France and the United Kingdom drafted the resolution, which names at least 11 Syrian government officials for an asset freeze and travel ban. The resolution also bans the export of chlorine to Syria and imposes restrictions on the sale of helicopters. In theory, Russia should agree to these sanctions because they are based on a prior resolution to which Russia already approved. In 2013, Russia and the USA co-sponsored a resolution calling for chemical weapons to be removed from Syria and for anyone who uses chemical weapons to be punished. That resolution also established what is known in UN-parlance as the “Joint Investigative Mechanism” to probe allegations of chemical weapons use. The “JIM,” in turn, found three instances in which the government used chemical weapons, and one in which ISIS used them.
The resolution up for a vote this week is based on those JIM reports. But Russia has already singled that it might oppose these measures. According to Security Council Report, “Russia reiterated its skepticism regarding the conclusions presented by the JIM, questioned the body of evidence on which they were based, and characterized the draft resolution as a “provocation.” Russia also circulated a competing draft resolution that was devoid of any legally binding punitive measures.
In the meanwhile, the actions and rhetoric coming from United States Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has been far more confrontational with Russia than the conciliatory tone coming from the White House. On Friday, Haley accused Russia of continuing to “babysit and make excuses for the Syrian regime” while people suffocated to death. “It’s barbaric,” she said. Haley also joined her UK and French counterparts as co-sponsors of the resolution, putting the USA once again in direct confrontation with Russia over Syria.
If, as expected, Russia vetoes this resolution it will be Donald Trump’s first big defeat at the Security Council and signal that despite the change in administrations in Washington, diplomacy on Syria is still pretty much stuck where it’s been since the start of the civil war six years ago.