U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met under the steely gaze of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose portrait hung over their negotiating table at U.N. headquarters, and hammered out their latest agreement Thursday on a U.N. Security Council resolution to scrap Syria’s chemical weapons.
The presidential portrait was a subtle reminder that Putin’s top diplomats hold the home-court advantage at the United Nations. Lavrov headed Russia’s U.N. delegation for a decade; Putin’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, has served here for more than seven years. Together, they enjoy vastly greater experience navigating the intricacies of the U.N. Security Council parliamentary rules than their American counterparts. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, a former member of the Russia diplomatic delegation, was actually a U.N. employee.
America’s national security team is hardly composed of novices on U.N. matters. As a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry frequently engaged in U.N. diplomacy. Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, is one of the longest-serving American envoys to the U.N. — and a willing and able sparring partner of Churkin. Samantha Power, while still untested around the Security Council’s horseshoe table, has been a keen student of the United Nations for years, reporting from the field in Africa and the Balkans and authoring a biography of slain U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Still, for most of the past two years, Lavrov and Churkin have largely defined the rules of the game in the U.N. Security Council, effectively constraining American and European attempts to use the U.N. Security Council to apply economic or political pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The relatively toothless deal struck Thursday is just the latest example.
After the Syrian government’s alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburbs, the United States for the first time threatened to bypass the United Nations and launch punitive U.S. airstrikes against Syrian targets. That threat prompted Syria to offer its most far-reaching concessions during the two-and-a-half-year civil war, agreeing to a Russian plan to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpile under international supervision. But Putin has since convinced Obama to manage the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons through the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow possesses the power to veto any future sanctions or military threat against the regime.
"Throughout the Syria crisis, Lavrov’s modus operandi has been to entangle the U.S. in U.N. procedural issues; he is an absolute master of U.N. procedure," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University. "Hillary Rodham Clinton and Kerry are both very experienced diplomats, but Lavrov has the upper hand in understanding U.N. rules and procedures. We have seen that play out over the Geneva agreement and how this is being translated into a relatively soft Security Council resolution." The Geneva agreement, which was negotiated in 2012 by Lavrov and Clinton, calls for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria.
"Lavrov’s great skill is that he projects gravitas as a man you can do business with, and I think that probably appeals to Kerry," said Gowan. "You sense in the Geneva negotiations that perhaps Kerry has been placing weight on his personal relationship with Lavrov and the ability to strike a real man-to-man relationship with Lavrov. Lavrov offsets this by getting back to the rule book. Lavrov is less willing to bend the U.N. rules than Kerry."
The United States, as Obama’s national security team has repeatedly pointed out, has never taken the threat of military action entirely off the table. But a Russian-American pact that was struck nearly two weeks ago in Geneva to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control will considerably raise the threshold for approving a future strike. "As Sergei knows, under any circumstances, there would be a debate in the Security Council" to determine whether sanctions or military force will be permitted, Kerry told a joint press conference with Lavrov on Sept. 14. "With respect to the question of the use of force … [our] commander in chief always retains the right to defend the United States of America and our interests."
The reality, however, is more complicated.
A draft U.N. resolution that was endorsed this afternoon by the U.N.’s five big powers — and which is expected to be approved by the full Security Council in a matter of days — threatens no automatic penalties against Syria if it fails to comply with its obligations or even if it launches a fresh chemical attack.
The deal was cinched following Kerry’s meeting today with Lavrov. U.S. officials lauded the agreement as a landmark pact that strengthens the international effort to halt the use of chemical weapons. Kerry voiced hope that "this resolution can now give life hopefully to the removal and destruction of chemical weapons in Syria." If Syria complies, the arrangement would mark a major diplomatic achievement for Obama and for Kerry.
But if Syria cheats, the president will find himself constrained from acting. Under the terms of the resolution, a committee of diplomats and functionaries from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will determine whether Syria has violated the terms of the agreement.
The matter would then be taken up by the U.N. Security Council. In principle, Russia has agreed that in the event of a Syrian violation, it is prepared to impose measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter — a provision that is used to authorize sanctions or the use of military force.
But it doesn’t have to. A provision of a confidential draft resolution proposed last week by Russia suggests how difficult it may be to convince Russia to press ahead with any stern measures. First, Russia insisted that evidence of a violation be "indisputable and proved" and that it must be of a particular "gravity" to merit the adoption of a new resolution. So far, according to U.S. and European officials, Russia has disputed what they believe is indisputable evidence that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people on Aug. 21. The latest draft has also dropped a provision calling for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute those responsible for using chemical weapons. Instead, it merely states that perpetrators of such an attack should be held accountable for their crimes.
"By dropping the ICC referral early on, Kerry allowed himself to get bullied by Russia without putting up much of a fight for Syria’s victims of horrific crimes," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Any progress to lock away or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons can only be welcomed but should not come at the price of impunity for those responsible for the gassing of hundreds of children, and so many other grave crimes."
Ty McCormick contributed to this article.
Please follow me on Twitter: @columlynch