U.S. Stonewalls Putin’s ‘Anti-Terror’ Push at the United Nations

Putin wants to secure U.N. approval for his leap into the Middle East by couching it as a broad-front fight against Islamic terrorism. The United States is having none of it.

US President Barack Obama (R) meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (L)  in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, during the G20 leaders Summit. Obama met today Putin at a G20 summit to discuss differences over what to do about the bloody conflict in Syria. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY        (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImages)
US President Barack Obama (R) meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (L) in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, during the G20 leaders Summit. Obama met today Putin at a G20 summit to discuss differences over what to do about the bloody conflict in Syria. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI POOL / ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/GettyImages)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first visit to the U.N. General Assembly in a decade was meant to let him slap a seal of international approval on his military foray into Syria, by seeking agreement on a U.N. Security Council statement promoting a broad-based counterterrorism fight. But U.S. diplomats have squelched the proposal, sinking Russia’s hopes of sailing into New York next week under a saintly halo.

Russian diplomats have spent the past month trying to put together a statement for the Security Council, under Russian presidency this month, that would paint Moscow’s jets, air bases, and drones in Syria as part of a well-intentioned plan to bring stability to a strife-torn region and push back against the Islamic State. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plans to convene a high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 30. But any hopes of securing council support for a Russian-drafted statement has been dashed by the United States.

One of the major concerns about the Russian-backed U.N. statement, according to Western diplomats speaking to Foreign Policy, was that Putin would use it as ammunition in his widely anticipated speech before the General Assembly on Monday. U.S. and European powers say they can tolerate a lecture by Putin on Western arrogance and interventionism, but diplomats were concerned that Putin might grasp on the statement in his speech, giving the Russian strongman’s words the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council. That’s an especially noxious prospect to many Western officials given their belief that Putin’s unflinching support for the regime of embattled strongman Bashar al-Assad has driven much of the devastation and extremism in the conflict.

The U.S. snub followed weeks of closed-door negotiations involving the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France. But last week, U.S. diplomats made it clear that Washington saw no point in continuing discussions on the Russian draft.

The spat over the terrorism statement and parallel efforts to keep U.S. and Russian military activities in Syria and Iraq separate has sucked most of the oxygen out of the room. Other U.N. diplomats say that while the United States and Russia have begun talks aimed at avoiding shooting at one another, the U.N.-backed effort to promote a political settlement in Syria has been practically derailed.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoygu, to discuss ways to avoid accidents between the Russian military, which has ramped up its presence in Syria, and the U.S. military, which is conducting airstrikes against Islamic State militants in the country. Carter “emphasized the importance of pursuing such consultations in parallel with diplomatic talks that would ensure a political transition in Syria,” said a Pentagon spokesman. “He noted that defeating ISIL [another acronym for the Islamic State] and ensuring a political transition are objectives that need to be pursued at the same time.”

But despite the U.S. desire to keep a diplomatic solution in sight, it seems to be slipping further away, in part because of the sudden chill that settled over U.S.-Russian relations.

The U.N.’s diplomatic effort, led by special envoy Staffan de Mistura, to engage the warring parties in talks leading to a political transition in Syria, has been overtaken by the discussions over how to avoid a clash between Russian and U.S. military personnel. One U.N.-based diplomat said no one really talks about de Mistura’s peace efforts these days.

“My own view is that the space for diplomacy, which was opening up maybe a couple of months ago” with the Iran deal, has closed, said another senior Security Council diplomat. The window for diplomatic progress “was slammed shut with the announcement of the Russian military buildup, which is very worrying,” the diplomat said.

The window won’t likely open in New York. Putin initially planned a three-day stay, but diplomats now say he will likely cut his trip to a single day, when he addresses the General Assembly shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama. Despite the Security Council snub, Obama may not ice Putin completely: Russian media reported that Putin and Obama will meet in New York.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest did not deny the reports, but said Obama’s schedule was not yet locked down. “President Putin is planning to travel to New York, and for part of the time that he’s in New York, President Obama will also be there,” Earnest said, noting that a final schedule may be available as early as Thursday.

Russian diplomats have been working behind the scenes to secure support for a Security Council statement “emphasizing the urgent need for taking measures to settle and prevent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa region and outlining possible further steps to address terrorist risks in the region,” according to a confidential Russian concept paper shared with Security Council members earlier this month.

Implicit in the Russian strategy is a critique of U.S. policy in Iraq and Libya, faulting the NATO-led intervention in 2011 with destabilizing the region. “The development observed since 2003 in Iraq [has] brought the country to a split-nation situation with parts of its territory becoming strongholds of the terrorist international, and [has] given rise to an extremely dangerous trend of inter-religious confrontation,” it says.

The original draft presented to Security Council members in early September would have provided a degree of political cover for Russia’s military deployment in Syria. It urged U.N. members to combat terrorists, including the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and a variety of other splinter groups, “by all means,” a phrase frequently used in U.N. parlance to describe military action. The draft statement also stressed “the need to provide robust military support and enhance combat capacities of the member states in the region actively involved in counter-terrorism activities.”

The statement would have also called on Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks, expressed “grave concern” about the Islamic State’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and promoted Russian efforts to involve Syria and Iran in the counterterrorism front, urging all nations in the Middle East and North Africa “to overcome their existing contradictions and [unite] in a concerted effort to combat terrorism.” The language reflects Russia’s desire to convince the United States and other key powers that Syria and Iran should be considered partners, not enemies, in the fight against terrorism. The Russian draft also avoided any mention of the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

Facing resistance from the United States and other countries, Russia offered to strip out some of the more controversial provisions, including the reference to the need to provide military support to countries fighting terrorism. A revised text, dated Sept. 22, also included more balanced language condemning any party for using chemical weapons. Those changes nearly coaxed diplomats back to the table.

“The second draft wasn’t outrageous, and we were ready to discuss it,” said one council diplomat. But “the Americans were much more reticent.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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

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