Obama wanted a showdown with Russia at the U.N. over Syria’s use of chemical weapons. But Europeans say not so fast.
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media., John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy covering diplomacy and national security.
In December, just weeks before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, President Barack Obama’s top national security advisors prepared one final battle with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the world stage.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, encouraged Washington’s European allies — Britain and France — to move forward on a long-delayed resolution that would sanction the Syrian government and the Islamic State for their use of chemical weapons in the conflict there. The Obama administration wanted a vote in the U.N. Security Council in coming days to “hold accountable” those behind Syria’s chemical weapons program, even though Russia will certainly veto the resolution.
But Washington is getting pushback from an unexpected quarter. Britain and France, the champions of the measures, suddenly wavered, repeatedly delaying to put the resolution to a vote. They backpedaled before Christmas, again before New Year’s, and once more in early January.
In the end, Britain and France now seem likely to wait for Trump to continue their effort to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable. But Trump, who has expressed a desire to cooperate with Putin and Russia, especially on Syria, is unlikely to seek a clash with the Russian president over Syria’s chemical weapons at the United Nations. That could doom international efforts to punish Assad.
“Given President-elect Trump’s professed interest in improving relations with Russia, it is unlikely that one of his first diplomatic acts will be to force Russia to veto yet another resolution on Syria,” said Gregory Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University. “Holding the Assad regime accountable for its use of chemical weapons and other war crimes is likely a lost cause.”
With chances slim for a vote on the resolution, the United States on Thursday took unilateral action against Syria, announcing Treasury Department sanctions on 18 Syrian government officials, including several intelligence chiefs linked to the Assad regime’s use of chlorine gas on civilians in 2014 and 2015.
“Until the Security Council holds accountable those responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria, the United States and partners will take up this cause and ensure the end of impunity for those who have gassed their own people,” Power said in a statement Thursday.
The tough stance marks something of a reversal for U.S. policymakers. As far back as August 2016, Washington had urged London and Paris to hold their fire on a similar resolution. The United States was worried that a confrontation in the 15-nation council with Russia would undermine efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to negotiate a Syrian cease-fire with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
But now, with the United States largely sidelined from Syrian peacemaking, supplanted by a new round of cease-fire talks brokered by Turkey and Russia, U.S. officials grew increasingly keen to confront Moscow and send a strong message about the need to hold Syria accountable for using chemical weapons before Obama leaves office.
Security Council diplomats have offered a variety of explanations for why Britain and France are apparently holding back on a measure they drafted. They need to build greater support inside the Security Council for the resolution, one diplomat said, including among the five new countries that just joined the council. There is also fear of jeopardizing Syria political talks scheduled for Jan. 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan, three days after the inauguration, the diplomat added.
In addition, the council has unanimously adopted two resolutions on Syria, including a Dec. 19 measure authorizing the deployment of U.N. monitors to help with the evacuation of civilians from Aleppo. Britain and France are concerned that such cooperation could be scuttled by a confrontation over chemical weapons.
“If you bring this resolution to a vote now and the Russians veto it, you will blow up this fragile positive trend,” said a council diplomat. “What do you gain?”
But looming large over the proceedings is the fear that picking a fresh fight with Russia right as Trump steps into power could provoke a backlash against the U.N. by the incoming U.S. administration. Such a fight could undercut the U.N.’s efforts to stop chemical weapons proliferation, especially because Trump, his team, and many in Congress are already angry with the U.N. for recently adopting a resolution denouncing Israeli settlements.
On Thursday, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced the Safeguard Israel Act, which would cut funding to the United Nations until the president certifies that the Security Council has repealed the settlements resolution.
“No one is arguing we should not vote on an issue as important as this,” said one Security Council diplomat, acknowledging that Russia will veto any attempt. But “there are lot of reasons to tread carefully,” the diplomat added. A second council diplomat said it is all but certain that the resolution would be put on the back burner until after Obama’s departure.
“We are still working out the best timing,” added a third council diplomat. The diplomat insisted that Trump was not a key factor in determining whether to delay action.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States wholeheartedly supports council action to hold Assad accountable but said it is up to its European allies to decide on timing.
The Obama administration had hoped to force a Russian veto on Syria’s use of chemical weapons before falling back on its own unilateral sanctions. Britain and France, meanwhile, are expected to issue statements supporting the American action but will not impose their own sanctions on Syrian officials. But country-by-country sanctions don’t have the bite of U.N. resolutions, which bind the rest of the world.
The Obama administration’s struggles to goad the U.N. into holding Assad accountable casts a troubled legacy over the one potential bright spot in U.S. policy in Syria.
In her exit memo, Power spotted a silver lining in what she described as the U.N. Security Council’s “abject failure” to end the slaughter of civilians in Syria. “Despite Russian intransigence” in the 15-nation council, where Moscow’s U.N. envoy vetoed six Syria resolutions, the United States had succeeded in forging a landmark agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program, she wrote. That agreement, brokered between the United States and Russia in 2013, oversaw what was billed as the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, and it succeeded in destroying some 1,300 tons of chemical agents and precursors.
But that deal is under stress as the Obama administration winds down. Syria’s chemical weapons program seems to have been a lot bigger than anyone thought. And Assad has continued to use chemical weapons, like chlorine, even after that agreement. A Russian veto of the resolution would essentially kill any chance of sanctioning Syria, the only country to use chemical weapons after joining the Chemical Weapons Convention. It would also let the Islamic State off the hook.
“On the positive side, we have successfully, and in a timely way, destroyed over 1,300 metric tons of Syrian chemical agents and precursor chemicals,” said Paul Walker, the director of Green Cross International’s environmental security and sustainability program. “But on the down side, we have failed so far” to be sure that Syria has destroyed all its chemical weapons and have failed to stop it from using chlorine as a weapon, he added.
And the effort to hold accountable the Syrian regime officials who oversaw the chemical weapons program and deployed them against civilians has been further hobbled by political fighting between Russia and the West that has decimated a critical international team of chemical weapons inspectors.
Known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), the panel — including specialists from the U.N. and The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — was created in 2015 to point fingers at those responsible for using the weapons. It concluded in August and in October that the Syrian air force dropped chlorine bombs on rebel-held towns in 2014 and 2015 and that the Islamic State fired blister gas rockets. It also discovered more than a dozen other cases where anti-government forces may have used chemical weapons.
Moscow disputed the panel’s conclusion that the Assad regime, a longtime Russian ally, used chemical weapons and sought to shift the team’s focus. When the JIM’s mandate was up for renewal this summer and fall, Britain and France started talks with Russia to give it another year of life. Moscow demanded the panel shift its focus to what it calls anti-government terrorists throughout the region.
Amid the uncertainty, the 26-member technical team largely disbanded when its mandate expired Oct. 31. Only two full-time staffers are focused on the effort. By the time the council finally agreed to extend the panel’s mandate in mid-November, the U.N. was forced to rebuild the team almost from scratch. Diplomats say the full team will be up and running in February at the earliest possible.
Some diplomats say the U.N. “screwed up” and failed to prepare to fully fund the team while its renewal was under discussion, forcing a stopgap solution and sowing uncertainty over the JIM’s future. Others complain the U.N. has moved too slowly, squandering precious months of work. In a closed-door Security Council meeting last week, Britain’s U.N. envoy, Matthew Rycroft, pointedly asked U.N. disarmament chief Kim Won-soo why the JIM has been unable to conduct investigations for months.
Kim said budget issues have had no effect on the JIM, and staff reductions are temporary. “We are doing everything possible to make the JIM able to discharge its crucial mandate,” he told Foreign Policy.
The JIM’s struggles and the political infighting in Turtle Bay have heightened the prospects that Assad’s use of chemical weapons will go unpunished, with potentially dire impacts on international efforts to halt proliferation.
“The Assad regime’s ability to continue using chemical weapons against civilians with impunity is a travesty,” Koblentz said. “If these blatant violations of the Chemical Weapon Convention go unpunished, then the risks that other states will resort to the use of chemical weapons goes up.”
Photo credit: NIGEL TREBLIN/Getty Images