The Cable

Olympic Game: Washington Hopes Sochi Will Force Putin’s Hand on Syria

For three bloody years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proved time and time again that his relationship with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is more important to him than winning the world’s approval. But with Russian pride on the line in Sochi, the United States and its allies are gambling that Moscow would rather let a ...

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

For three bloody years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proved time and time again that his relationship with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is more important to him than winning the world’s approval.

But with Russian pride on the line in Sochi, the United States and its allies are gambling that Moscow would rather let a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria go through than veto it and risk drawing international condemnation during the high-profile Olympic Games.

The new resolution backed by Barack Obama’s administration, Britain, and France condemns both the Syrian government and the opposition’s violations of human rights, demands a halt to "the use of starvation as a method of combat," and calls on all sides to "immediately end the siege" of cities like Homs and Ghouta. Despite the measured language, diplomats say the resolution is primarily aimed at the Assad government. The measure also threatens to impose sanctions on individuals and entities that fail to abide by the terms of the resolution within 30 days of its passage.

Similar resolutions have been proposed and vetoed before, but Western diplomats believe this time may be different.

The plan, according to the diplomats, is to force Moscow to take a position on the resolution while the Sochi Olympics are still going on. Western diplomats hope that Putin will decide not to risk the international opprobrium that could come from vetoing a humanitarian resolution on Syria while he’s busy using the games to burnish Russia’s reputation on the world stage. A similar pressure campaign on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics persuaded China to use its diplomatic muscle to prod Sudan into accepting an international peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

Still, winning over Putin won’t be easy. Moscow has already vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria, preventing any meaningful action against Damascus and leaving the 15-nation council paralyzed. And the Russian strongman hasn’t given any indication that he’s willing to rethink his support for Assad.

"The Russians have proved quite willing to stand up to the West in the face of mass atrocities, and they are not going to be scared by the fact that the West is confronting them during the Olympics," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. at the Center on International Cooperation. "The West thinks the diplomacy around Syria is like figure skating, and it’s all about clever maneuvers, but the Russians are treating this like ice hockey: It’s a contact sport, and the people who play hardest come out with the medals."

Indeed, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told the Security Council Tuesday that the draft resolution being pushed by the Western powers was "unacceptable." On Wednesday, Russia circulated its own watered-down version of the resolution, which urges both sides in the Syrian war to grant access for relief workers. The resolution doesn’t threaten any sanctions, and Russia is also pressing for the adoption of a statement that highlights the rising threat of terrorism in Syria, an approach that reinforces the Syrian government’s efforts to blame foreign extremists for the country’s troubles.

European diplomats say that is not going to fly. "What’s the point of such a resolution?" asked one European diplomat. "You have to have some certain threat of measures for noncompliance."

There are mounting signs that the already grim situation inside Syria is growing even direr. Assad’s government, for instance, recently allowed several hundred people — mainly women, children, and the elderly — to leave the besieged city of Homs. However, some of the men who tried to leave the city were detained by Syrian security personnel when they reached the outskirts of the city.

The pause in the fighting in and around Homs also offered a harrowing glimpse of what life was like for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians trapped in the areas of their country under siege. One resident of Homs said he had been forced to survive on "weeds" and "coriander," according to a film posted by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Another ate herbs and oil.

"In Syria, civilians have been subjected to brutal violence for almost three years, and there appears to be no end in sight," Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, told the U.N. Security Council Wednesday. "The use of siege as a weapon of war is particularly heinous — the deliberate denial of humanitarian assistance to people in desperate need.… There are 250,000 people in areas of the country which are besieged. They cannot leave and we cannot get aid in."

The current resolution was drafted by diplomats from Australia and Luxembourg. The idea of using the Sochi Games to pressure Putin to allow it through appears to have originated with Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant. Grant, according to a Security Council diplomat, recently floated the idea of using the Olympics as leverage to force the Russians into supporting, or at least not vetoing, the new humanitarian resolution.

The British "were the first to say we need to go fast," the diplomat told Foreign Policy. "They were convinced that the Russians wouldn’t like a veto between the opening and closing ceremonies."

The United States initially demurred, fearing that a new fight with Russia over the humanitarian crisis in Syria could harm a parallel effort to bring the two sides in the civil war to the negotiating table to try to hash out a political solution to the conflict.

The Obama administration dropped its objections after the U.N.’s chief Syria mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, told Washington that the new resolution wouldn’t get in the way of his diplomatic efforts. A council diplomat said the second-highest-ranking member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N., Rosemary DiCarlo, relayed Brahimi’s assurances to the council on Tuesday. "Rosemary said we have talked to Brahimi, and he said he has no objection; he said this cannot hurt him in any way in Geneva," the diplomat said.

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

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