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Saudis to Push General Assembly Vote on Syria Intervention

As President Obama struggles to secure congressional approval for air strikes in Syria, America’s principal Persian Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, has been quietly exploring the possibility of seeking a U.N. General Assembly vote that would provide some cover for military action. The diplomatic initiative is part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia to stake ...


As President Obama struggles to secure congressional approval for air strikes in Syria, America’s principal Persian Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia, has been quietly exploring the possibility of seeking a U.N. General Assembly vote that would provide some cover for military action.

The diplomatic initiative is part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia to stake out a role as a central Middle East powerbroker as the forces of political turmoil sweep across the region. With the U.N. Security Council blocked by Russia from taking action to confront Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia is sounding out key U.N. powers about the prospect of seeking General Assembly approval of a resolution that would condemn the use of chemical weapons and open the door to possible military action to ensure those responsible are held accountable.

The Saudis have grown increasingly assertive on the regional stage, recently organizing a $12 billion financial aid package, including commitments from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, for Egypt’s military rulers, a move that undercut U.S. efforts to start political talks between Egypt’s new government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Arab states have also offered to underwrite the full costs of a U.S.-led military operation against Syria. "With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assess, the answer is profoundly yes." Kerry didn’t name Saudi Arabia as the country making the offer, but there are few other states outside the Persian Gulf with the money or the political interest in seeing the Americans unseating Syria’s leader. "In fact, some of them have said that if the United States is prepared to go do the whole thing the way we’ve done it previously in other places, they’ll carry that cost," he added. "That’s how dedicated they are at this."

But Kerry made it clear that the initiative was "not in the cards, and nobody’s talking about it." Despite U.S. plans to strike Syria, Kerry made it clear that the United States believes that the crisis in Syria can only be resolved through a political settlement.

In New York, Saudi diplomats last week circulated a draft General Assembly resolution that would authorize states to "take all necessary measures" — diplomatic short hand for military force — to end impunity and hold perpetrators of massive human rights abuses accountable for their crimes. On Friday, representatives from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Morocco briefed Britain, France and the United States on the draft.

The three Western powers urged Saudi Arabia to delay its plan to press for a vote. One diplomat familiar with the discussion said that the United States and its European allies were concerned that a contentious U.N. debate over the use of force could complicate military plans. But others cited concern that it made no sense to push for a resolution dealing with chemical weapons before the U.N. had even completed its assessment of its field visit. The U.N. secretary general is expected to present the U.N. Security Council with a report on the team’s findings within the next 10 days.

For the moment, the Saudis are holding the draft in a "drawer" to see whether President Obama presses ahead with plans to strike Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons, according to one diplomat briefed on the plans. But they expect the Saudis to resume their push whether the Americans go ahead with the strike or not. "The Saudis must be very concerned that the United States is going to blink and avoid using force," said Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, citing Washington and Moscow’s ongoing push to initiate political talks between the warring factions in Geneva. "The Saudis are trying to signal they are trying to push for the United States to go all the way."

While London recently sought support for a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters that Russia has made it clear it will block any action by the Security Council on Syria. "Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the Council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities," Power said. "Our considered view, after months of efforts on chemical weapons and after two and a half years on Geneva, on the humanitarian situation, is that there is no viable path forward in this Security Council."

There are precedents for the U.N. General Assembly in authorizing the use of force in the face of Security Council paralysis. In November 1950, the United States, fearing Russian diplomatic obstruction during the Korean War, obtained a mandate from the U.N. General Assembly that granted the U.N. body a role in bypassing the U.N. Security Council. That measure, known at the Uniting for Peace resolution, states that "if the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures, including in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression the use of armed force when necessary, to maintain or restore international peace and security." The General Assembly would later invoke the Uniting for Peace resolution to send a U.N. peacekeeping mission to the Sinai.

More recently, the United States, Britain, and France have grown reluctant to support a similar role for the U.N. General Assembly, preferring that all decisions on the use of force remain subject to Security Council approval.

Edward Luck, the dean of the University of San Diego’s School of Peace Studies, said he wouldn’t rule out eventual U.S. support for a General Assembly resolution. "My assumption would be that the United States at this point would welcome any strong show of international support for its position," he said. But the risk is that a low vote count would expose deep international misgiving about military action. "The United States doesn’t want the same thing to happen in the General Assembly as happened in the British Parliament," where British Prime Minister David Cameron‘s push for military action in Syria met a devastating defeat, said Luck.

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