Turtle Bay

Russia introduces watered-down resolution on Syria

For several months, Russia has protected Syria in the U.N. Security Council, vetoing a Western-backed resolution that hinted at possible sanctions, and criticizing Western powers for seeking to use the council to topple President Bashar al-Assad. But today, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin sought to seize the initiative on Syria at the United Nations, presenting ...

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

For several months, Russia has protected Syria in the U.N. Security Council, vetoing a Western-backed resolution that hinted at possible sanctions, and criticizing Western powers for seeking to use the council to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

But today, Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin sought to seize the initiative on Syria at the United Nations, presenting its own resolution that would condemn Damascus for "the disproportionate use of force" against protests while also censoring "extremist groups" that are attacking state institutions and law enforcement officials.

Churkin told reporters that he hoped the resolution would help "stop violence, uphold human rights" and expedite government reforms. "We all believe the Security Council must do something." He said the council should not play a role that would "fan the conflict" but instead "bring an end to the crisis."

From a military standpoint, the Russian draft would play to the Syrian government’s advantage by stalling a burgeoning armed insurrection that is gaining momentum and posing an increasing threat to Assad’s survival. For instance, it would bar anti-government insurgents from receiving smuggled arms while allowing Syria to continue to purchase weapons from Russia and other international suppliers.

The initiative triggered sighs of exasperation from Western diplomats, who don’t trust Moscow, and who suspect Churkin may be pursuing this course of action to save an ally in Damascus. These Western diplomats said they would never pass a resolution that placed the Syrian authorities, who are responsible for more than 5,000 civilian deaths, and the opposition on the same moral plane.

"To put the Syrian authorities and the peaceful demonstrators and the opposition on the same level is totally unacceptable," said Germany’s U.N. ambassador Peter Wittig. But he said "We are engaging with this Russian draft."

Still, France’s U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud portrayed the Russian move as a step forward in the international effort to pressure Syria to halt its bloody crackdown.

"We are positively surprised that eventually Russia has decided to move on the resolution project, on the resolution draft. We think that it is because Russia has felt the pressure of the international community."

Araud said that France is prepared to begin negotiations with the Russians on the resolution, even though "we consider the text is unbalanced…. This text is in fact putting an equivalence between the two sides…. We have to really show that the violence has come from the Syrian regime."

The Europeans are gambling that they can turn the tables on Moscow’s diplomats by negotiating for tougher terms in the Russian draft. Araud said he would seek a sterner condemnation of Syria’s rights abuses, a reference to a devastating report on abuses by the U.N.’s rights chief, Navi Pillay, and an endorsement of the Arab League initiative — which includes the imposition of sanctions and a requirement that Syria allow Arab observers into the country to assess the violence.

"The only game in town is the Arab League initiative," he said. "We have to fully support it, and I remind you that part of the Arab league initiative was sanctions."

The Russian draft, which was obtained by Turtle Bay, is updated from an earlier draft that was put forward by Russia and China in August. It calls for "strongly condemning continuing violence coming from all parties, including disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities…" At the same time, it calls for an "immediate end to all violence and provocations" while "condemning the activity of extremists groups, including attacks against state institutions, law enforcement personnel and urging all sides to act with utmost restraint."

The resolution "demands that all parties in Syria immediately stop any violence" and it expresses concern over the "Illegal supply of weapons to the armed groups in Syria" and calls on Syria’s neighbors to "to take necessary steps to prevent such supplies."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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