UNSC and Syria: Getting warmer…

In a three hour open session, the United Nations Security Council heard the strongest push yet for the passage of a resolution on Syria. Though lacking in the drama that many predicted in the “Super Bowl” of the Security Council, the meeting did make somewhat clearer the demands that would have to be met before a vote on the draft resolution tabled by Morocco.

Negotiations are ongoing surrounding a few key preambulatory clauses and one operative, as seen in red here. Some were to be expected, such as the clause expressing concern at the flow of weapons into Syria. But the harshest pushback from Russia has been on operative clause seven, the part of the text mirroring the League’s roadmap for political transition in Syria.

Ostensibly, this meeting’s purpose was the hear briefings from the Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby and Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim, in his role as the chair of the League of Arab States’ committee on Syria, on the recently postponed Observer Mission and to push for the Security Council to take up the text of its January 22 resolution in full. In actuality, the meeting was a free-for-all dogpile on Russia to yield its intransigence.

The diplomatic big guns were in the room, with the Foreign Ministers of Portugal, Germany, and Morocco present. And then in a class above that, the Really Big Guns: French Minister of Foreign Affairs Alaine Juppe, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs William Hague, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In a pattern that seems familiar to those who watched the Libyan debate, there’s a clear “good cop/bad cop” dynamic by the West at play.  Hague and Juppe played their roles perfectly, with Juppe throwing the word “scandalous” around liberally as they wailed on Syria. Despite the pressure employed by the two, Hague emphasized that the draft in question was under Chapter VI, not Chapter VII of the Charter.

Clinton’s good cop was also pitch perfect, as she managed to clearly delineate the difference between a “political handover” and “regime change”, no easy feat. The US has gotten quite good at portraying itself as the level-headed one in the room, particularly whenever Rice or Clinton are speaking.

I could go on at length about just how very, very bad Syrian Permanent Representative Bashar Ja’afari was in this debate. So I will. He was clearly outmatched, starting off by quoting Syrian poetry, leading me to wonder if the mild fever I have had just crested. Ja’afari leaned heavily on his government’s own particular spin on the situation affecting Syria. For example, in quoting the Arab League monitor’s report, he correctly pointed out that Paragraph 71 states that there is an armed opposition that wasn’t taken into account by the Arab League in its original resolution. But in the very next sentence, the report stresses that the armed opposition sprung up because of the regime’s violence.

The man everyone was watching, however, wasn’t the Representative from Damascus. Instead, all eyes were on Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Churkin was there in place of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was in Australia instead of New York as was rumored today.

Despite utilizing the full range of his usual rhetoric, Churkin made no explicit veto threats during the meeting itself. Instead Russia did a much, much better job of defending the actions of the Assad regime than Ja’afari did, pressing for a need for both parties to meet in Moscow to come to a political solution themselves. In the press stakeout after the meeting, Churkin stated that the Arab League is in the driver’s seat on Syria. He extended the metaphor, saying “sometimes when in the driver’s seat, as the Arab League is, you step too hard on the accelerator, and wind up in a ditch”.

Nothing new was truly learned during the speeches, but it does seem that Russia and China are running low on excuses for not supporting the draft tabled by Morocco. Neither cited any real opposition to the actual content of the resolution, nor did they really push back on the statements of the Secretary-General of the Arab League and the Qatari Prime Minister. Being customarily opaque, China, in its speech, said that it “supports” Russia’s draft as tabled several weeks ago, while it merely “noted” the Moroccan text.

In all, the most likely result of this diplomatic blitz is slowly moving away from a Russian veto. That is, provided Moscow can be persuaded that the major concerns with the draft that it’s citing? Don’t actually exist in the text. Nowhere in the text exists explicit economic sanctions nor military intervention authorizations, despite the ample protests by Russia, China, India and Pakistan.

Those four, along with South Africa, make up the five states likely to oppose or abstain on the vote on this resolution. The most substantive of their concerns center in on the idea that actions and recommendations that are permissible at the level of the Arab League may not be the role of the Security Council. This argument is specious at best, as there is, in fact, much more a chance of international spillover from an escalation in Syria than there ever was in Libya clearly marking it as a situation at risk of disturbing international peace and security. In any case, if the draft actually manages to pass through with operative clause 7 intact, I’ll be extremely impressed. But it will be setting for the stage for another, even more difficult, battle in just fifteen days.

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