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Don’t bet on U.N. authorizing Syria intervention

Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the Arab League, boiled down the case against military intervention in Syria to three obstacles: elections, money (or the lack of it), and a Syrian army with 300,000 troops. In an interview with CNN on Thursday, the former Egyptian foreign minister sought to reassure Russia that the Arab League ...

Nabil Elaraby, the secretary general of the Arab League, boiled down the case against military intervention in Syria to three obstacles: elections, money (or the lack of it), and a Syrian army with 300,000 troops.

In an interview with CNN on Thursday, the former Egyptian foreign minister sought to reassure Russia that the Arab League quest to seek Security Council support for its mediation efforts in Syria will never lead to foreign military intervention.

For one, he said, the United States and France, are heading into an election year, making a costly military adventure political infeasible.

As for the prospects of another European-backed invasion, along the lines of what occurred in Libya? "I’m not going to say [they’re] bankrupt," but they are "not in the best economic situation to enter into such a venture." And even if they had the money, they would be facing off with a regular army, not a collection of armed militias loyal.

The effort to assuage Russia’s fear about a replay of Libya came as the United States and its European and Arab partners agreed to offer Russia a series of concessions to win its support for the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would pave the way for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s departure from power.

Those concessions include an agreement to drop provisions in the draft, introduced by Morocco, that would impose U.N. sanctions and a voluntary arms embargo on Damascus. The latest offer — outlined in new version of a draft resolution under negotiation in the 15-nation Security Council — represents something of a retreat by the U.S. and its European and Arab allies, stripping the most painful measures, and permitting Syria to continue buying Russian weapons to bolster its position.

But the pact would for the first time place the Security Council, and possibly Russia, squarely behind an Arab League plan outlining a timetable for a transfer of power to a government of national unity, and ultimately new parliamentary and presidential elections. And it would mark the first time since the violence began that the council has adopted a binding resolution condemning Syria’s conduct.

Security Council diplomats said they are confident that they have fashioned the broad parameters of a possible deal that would end months of inaction on Syria by the Security Council. But they cautioned that Russia has yet to agree to support an unambiguous endorsement of the Arab League political plan, and that the entire plan could unravel if they don’t.

"I don’t want to predict … but today discussion conducted in a constructive and roll-up-your-sleeves manner and if that continues there’s a possibility that well reach agreement, but there’s no certainty," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters late Wednesday. "There are issues of interest and principal that still divide the council."

The U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors this afternoon in an attempt to narrow the differences, but the talks hit a snag as Russia refused to approve an explicit endorsement of the Arab League plan for a political transition.

The Western and Arab sponsors plan to press ahead on the resolution, but Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin threatened to veto the measure if it was brought to a vote on Friday, saying his government needed more time to negotiate the terms of the resolution, according to two council diplomats who were in the closed-door session.

Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the chairman of the Arab League’s council of ministers, appealed to the Security Council on Tuesday to lend their weight to a plan calling for the beginning of talks between the Syrian government and opposition, which would lead to the establishment of a unity government within two months. Under the plan, Assad would be required to grant one of his deputies authority to cooperate with the united government, which would be led by an individual selected by rival parties.

Elaraby sought to reassure Russia that the resolution is not intended to justify military action, sanction Syria, or to force Assad to leave power.

"We didn’t ask that the president should step down, but only to delegate powers to the vice president," he said in an interview with CNN

But Elaraby said that Russian support for even a new, watered-down resolution would "put pressure" on the regime and drive home the fact that Moscow won’t stand up for them indefinitely.

"The regime itself is under pressure from the international [community] — and they cannot go on forever," he said. The lesson of Egypt, he said, is that "once the people will go to the street you have to yield to their demands."

Russia, which is backed by China, has insisted that the Arab League and the Security Council lack the right to impose a "pre-cooked" political settlement on Syria, saying that any plan for a transition needs to be negotiated by the Syrian government and the opposition. Russia’s U.N. envoy, Churkin, has insisted that his government would block any resolution that was designed to bring about regime change in Syria. It has offered to host talks in Moscow.

In an effort to assuage Russian concerns that the draft might serve as part of a pretext for future military action, the sponsors of the text have offered to include language expressly stating that the resolution does not "compel states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force."

The latest draft replaces that language with a provision, which is still not agreed, that expresses the council’s intention "to resolve the political crisis in Syria peacefully without foreign military intervention."

The Syrian government launched a brutal campaign of repression against peaceful demonstrators early last year, killing some 5,000 to 6,000 people, according to U.N. and other diplomatic estimates. In recent months, the violence has worsened as opposition forces have taken up arms against Assad government, leading the country to the brink of all-out civil war.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a presidential statement in August condemning the Syrian government’s conduct and calling for a political dialogue with the opposition. But, in October, Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution that threatened sanctions against Damascus if it didn’t halt the killing.

The latest draft "condemns the continued widespread and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities" and demands that Syria immediately cease attacks against protesters. It also condemns violent attacks against government targets by armed opposition forces.

But the text struck out a provision calling on states to "take necessary steps" to prevent the flow of weapons into Syria. It also eliminated another provision that called on states to reinforce existing Arab League financial and travel sanctions, and to impose similar measures against Syria.

If Syria fails to comply with the U.N.’s demands, according to the draft, the Security Council, in consultation with the Arab League, will consider "further measures," including possible sanctions, to ensure Syria does comply.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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

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