Turtle Bay

U.S. takes hard line against Syria – or does it?

For a moment on Monday night, it felt as if the full force of European diplomacy was being brought to bear on Syria at the United Nations. Citing last weekend’s bloody assault on the town of Hama, Britain — backed by France, Germany and Portugal — pushed for a vote on a resolution condemning Syria’s ...


For a moment on Monday night, it felt as if the full force of European diplomacy was being brought to bear on Syria at the United Nations. Citing last weekend’s bloody assault on the town of Hama, Britain — backed by France, Germany and Portugal — pushed for a vote on a resolution condemning Syria’s bloody crackdown on protesters.

But immediately after Britain put forward its measure in a closed door session of the council, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made it clear that Washington was prepared to settle for a less punitive measure, possibly a non-binding Security Council presidential statement. 

The American approach  seems to conflict with the confrontational strategy outlined by senior administration officials in interviews with Foreign Policy, and reflected in increasingly tough talk from Washington’s ambassador in Damascus.

In an interview on Monday with FP managing editor Blake Hounshell and The Cable reporter Josh Rogin, a senior administration official described working with European partners and Turkey to ratchet up pressure on Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. “He is illegitimate,” a senior administration told them. “We’ve definitely been very clear that we don’t see Assad in Syria’s future.”

But rather than bolster the Europeans’ efforts to pressure Syria through the Security Council, the U.S. delegation in New York seems to have paved the way for their retreat. Throughout the day Tuesday, some European diplomats admit that they may have to settle now for a presidential statement, or, at most, a watered-down resolution condemning Damascus.

According to Rice, however, the importing thing is not the form of the council’s response, but its content. “We continue to think this situation merits a resolution and a very strong one and that’s been our view for months now,” Rice said, responding to questioning from Turtle Bay on Monday evening. “But I think from the U.S. point of view we’re less worried about form than we are about substance.” 

There do indeed seem to be glimmers on the horizon of a compromise at the Security Council. Ever since Syria’s most recent assault on Damascus, those countries that had previously resisted U.N. action on Syria — including Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa — have been openly considering endorsing a mild rebuke against Damascus. Brazil, for instance, has offered a series of amendments to the British text — an indication that it wouldn’t necessarily vote against it. However, it remained unlikely that some Brazilian amendments — including a proposal to  invite Syria to conduct its own investigation into crimes– would be acceptable to the United States and European governments. Brazil also proposed including a provision condemning both the government crackdown on civilians in Syria and violent attacks against Syrian security forces.

Sergei Vershin, a top Russian diplomat who oversees Moscow’s Middle East policy, said today that his government is not “categorically” opposed to a resolution, but Russian diplomats made it clear that they would not approve any measure that opened the door to the imposition of sanctions, or possible military action against Syria in the future.

Still, the American push for a presidential statement rather than a resolution reflected the deep differences in recent months between the European and American approaches to applying pressure to Syria at the United Nations. While the United States has imposed bilateral sanctions on Syria, and frequently condemned its conduct, it has pursued a more cautious, consensual, strategy. They calculate that China and Russia will block the adoption of any meaningful resolution demanding that Syria cease its violent crackdown, openly dividing the international community that would strengthen Assad’s hand.

The ongoing NATO military assault on Libya continued to shadow the deliberations on Syria. Russia and India argued that the coalition partners had exceeded the terms of a U.N. mandate authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya, and had ultimately intervened in a civil war on the side of one party. They said they feared a Security Council resolution against Syria could pave the way for future military action there.

Calling it a “canard”, Rice dismissed such reasoning. “Frankly, in my opinion,” she said, “it’s an excuse by those who don’t want to confront what’s happening in Syria.”

The council’s key emerging powers — Brazil, India, and South Africa — announced plans this week to press ahead with a joint diplomatic visit to Damascus to try to defuse the crisis. India’s U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, who is serving as this month’s Security Council president, declined to describe the group’s aims. But his remarks underscore the political hurdles the U.S. and Europe face in organizing pressure against Syria in the U.N. Security Council.

In a briefing to reporters, Puri said that many of the council’s members, including India, don’t view the situation in Syria as a one-sided crackdown on protesters, citing reports of the deaths of Syrian security forces and the destruction of Syrian property.

“Let’s look at the facts,” he said. “This is no longer an issue of only a state against innocent helpless civilians. There has been violence perpetrated against security forces and against public infrastructure, which is brought out by the fact that 350 or more security forces have died; buildings have been burnt.”

Puri said that India recognizes the need for the council to speak out about the violence in Syria, and said that Indian diplomats have routinely urged Syria to stop the violence, and pursue political reforms. But he warned that any effort by the European sponsors of the council’s resolution to push through a “maximilist” text that imposes onerous conditions on Syria could lead to protracted negotiations, or jeopardize prospects for agreement altogether. 

Though the United States and Europe are forced to reckon with the on-the-ground analysis offered by India and the other skeptical countries on the council, few of their diplomats, or other top U.N. officials, agree with it. Indeed, Puri’s assessment bears a stark contrast to the picture portrayed by top U.N. officials, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who claimed in a briefing with Japanese reporters that Assad had “lost all sense of humanity.”

In a closed door briefing of the council. Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs, told the council that government forces in Syria have reportedly killed as many as 1,500 people in the course of the country’s crackdown, including as many as 140 people in Hama this past weekend. The government, he added, has jailed as many as 12,000 political prisoners. Taranco cited reports of the death of some 300 security forces, saying some may have been killed in clashes with armed opposition groups, or executed by the regime for seeking to defect from the army.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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