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Olympic Gain: With Sochi Winding Down, Russia Signs Off On U.N. Syria Resolution

Russia avoided a potentially embarrassing diplomatic bust-up on the eve of the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, casting its support behind a U.S.-backed United Nations Security Council resolution designed to compel the Syrian government, as well as armed opposition groups, to allow in needed humanitarian aid and immediately lift the siege of several ...

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Mario Tama/ Getty Images
Mario Tama/ Getty Images

Russia avoided a potentially embarrassing diplomatic bust-up on the eve of the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, casting its support behind a U.S.-backed United Nations Security Council resolution designed to compel the Syrian government, as well as armed opposition groups, to allow in needed humanitarian aid and immediately lift the siege of several Syrian towns.

But the adoption of the U.N. resolution by a vote of 15-0 was hardly a sign that Washington and Moscow are reading from the same page on Syria or on the other politically contentious issues that continue to dog relations between the onetime Cold War rivals.

While the resolution threatens Syria and other armed groups with unspecified "further steps" for failing to implement the resolution, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, made it clear to the council that his government was not prepared to automatically penalize Syria if it fails to move quickly to end its siege of Homs, Aleppo and other battered cities where more than 200,000 people have been cut off from food and medicine deliveries, some for more than a year.

His remarks signaled that the U.S. and its allies are likely to face an uphill battle to address any foot-dragging by Syria. In September, the Security Council threatened to impose sanctions on Syria if it failed to comply with the terms of a U.S.-Russian brokered deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. But Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, imposed a nearly insurmountable hurdle on action, saying that Moscow would require "100% proof" that Syria had violated the terms. Five months later, the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has turned over barely 5 percent of its chemical stockpiles and the American ship tasked for their destruction has docked in Spain indefinitely. Despite the delay, there seems to be little chance that Assad will be punished for dithering over the agreement.

Russia’s ability to slow the diplomatic wrangling over Syria and prevent the Security Council to take meaningful action has actually served to significantly strengthen Assad’s position. The Syrian leader had been losing ground on the battlefield for well over a year. But as Damascus’s military position improved the White House ruled out the sorts of airstrikes that might have given the rebels a decisive edge and has shied away from giving the opposition fighters more advanced weaponry. Outgunned, the rebels have been steadily losing control of much of the terrain they’d conquered.

Politically, meanwhile, the chemical weapons deal has boosted Assad’s standing considerably because Western governments know the agreement can only work if Assad retains power long enough to disclose the locations of all of his weapons and ensure they can be safely removed from the country. On February 4, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said "the prospects are right now that [Assad] is actually in a strengthened position that when we discussed this last year by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been."

Moscow has protected Assad, but the government of President Vladimir Putin has had far less success in neighboring Ukraine, a vital ally whose pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was pushed out of power Saturday after weeks of increasingly bloody street protests.

Yanukovych denounced his removal by the country’s parliament as a "coup d’etat," and his loyalists in the largely Russian speaking eastern part of the country vowed to challenge the move on legal grounds. Lavrov, meanwhile, said the Ukrainian parliament had violated the February 21 political agreement, brokered by Germany, France and Poland, that called on the Ukrainian leader to cede some powers and pave the way for early presidential elections in May. In a Russian foreign ministry statement quoted by Itar-Tass news agency, Lavrov said he had informed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the pact had been "sharply degraded by opposition forces’ inability or lack of desire" to honor it.

"It’s time to stop misleading the international public opinion and pretending that the Maidan represents the interests of the Ukrainian nation," he said. "The opposition not only has failed to fulfill a single one of its obligations but is already presenting new demands all the time, following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order."

Russian bluster aside, the hundreds of thousands of jubilant protesters who flooded downtown Kiev to celebrate Yanukovych’s departure and cheer for the formerly jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko made it clear that there was virtually nothing Moscow could do — short of an armed intervention — to bring its ally back into power. If anything, Ukraine’s next government is virtually certain to distance itself from Moscow in favor of closer ties with the European Union and the United States.

The future impact of Saturday’s Syrian resolution, by contrast, remains murky. The agreement was largely hailed by world leaders, U.N. delegates and human rights activists as an important, but decidedly modest, breakthrough. "This could be a hinge point in the tortured three years of a Syria crisis bereft of hope," said Secretary of State John Kerry. "Ths overdue resolution, if fully implemented, will ensure humanitarian aid reaches people in Syria whose lives depend on it."

Najib Ghadbian, the U.S.based representative of the Syrian National Coalition, a prominent opposition group, welcomed the vote as a "necessary first step" but expressed skepticism that Syria would comply. The Security Council, he said in a statement, must be prepared to "compel" the government to meet its obligations. "Failing that, we urge responsible nations to work with humanitarian agencies to deliver aid directly across Syria’s borders without the consent of the regime," he said.

Syrian envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, meanwhile, denied that his government was responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, telling the Security Council that his government had complied with previous U.N. requests to provide U.N. relief workers access to needy civilians. Instead, he accused armed terrorists of using "civilians as humanitarian hostages and human shields in order to prevent the Syrian security forces from moving against the terrorists."

Saturday’s vote followed months of grueling on-and-off diplomatic negotiations over the passage of the first U.N. Security Council resolution dealing specifically with Syria’s humanitarian crisis. It came only after the United States and other Western powers agreed to water down the language of an earlier draft that explicitly warned that Syria could face sanctions if it failed to comply with the terms of the resolution.

"It remains to be seen whether our action today will have the beneficial results we intend," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council. "Given its track record to date, the Syrian regime can be trusted only to deny what it has done and lie about what it will do."

The United States, Britain, France and other key sponsors of the resolution had timed the vote to coincide with the Sochi Winter Olympics, gambling that Russia, which had already vetoed three resolutions on Syria, wouldn’t dare to block a resolution that was aimed at delivering humanitarian assistance to starving civilians. At least for now, the bet seems to have paid off.

The resolution — which was initially drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan — strongly condemns human rights violations on both sides of the conflict, and demands that combatants immediately halt "indiscriminate" attacks against civilians, including the shelling and aerial bombardment of populated areas. It singles out the use of barrel bombs. China, which had joined Russia in vetoing three previous resolutions on Syria, also voted in favor of today’s resolution.

In perhaps the most controversial provision, the resolution demands that all parties, but in particular the Syrian government, "promptly allow rapid safe and unhindered access" for aid workers to distressed civilians in rebel-controlled areas of the country. It also demands that Damascus allow aid to flow in from neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and to allow shipments to move across conflict zones.

The Syrian government has imposed a wide range of bureaucratic hurdles to delivering aid. After the vote, Jaafari, the Syrian U.N. envoy, raised concerns that aid shipments crossing the border from Turkey and other neighboring countries into rebel-controlled areas could be used to smuggle arms to extremists.

The resolution also calls on the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to brief the council every 30 days on whether its terms were being honored, ensuring that the council will remain focused on Syria’s humanitarian crisis even if Russia doesn’t allow it to take more meaningful steps to alleviate the suffering.

The U.N. chief, who has been widely criticized for his handling of the crisis, expressed strong frustration that the council action had even been required. "This resolution should not have been necessary," he said. "Humanitarian assistance is not something to be negotiated; it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law."

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