Trump Administration Poised to Collide With Russia Over Syrian Chemical Weapons
Russian envoy vows to veto U.S.-backed resolution calling for sanctions against the Assad regime and the Islamic State for gassing Syrian towns.
The Trump administration is headed toward a diplomatic confrontation with Moscow at the United Nations, as the United States, Britain, and France pressed for the passage of a resolution sanctioning Syria’s use of chemical weapons in the face of a certain Russian veto.
U.S. and European diplomats in New York reached agreement Wednesday to press for the passage of a resolution, possibly as early as next week, that would impose an asset freeze and travel ban on 21 Syrian entities and military and intelligence chiefs linked to the government’s use of chlorine and other deadlier chemical weapons. It would also sharply restrict Syria’s import of military helicopters, which have been used to drop chlorine-filled barrel bombs on opposition-controlled Syrian towns.
“It is absolutely vital that the Security Council take action,” Peter Wilson, a senior British diplomat, told reporters Friday. “We absolutely intend to move forward with this resolution in the coming days.”
The move highlights the practical limits to U.S. cooperation with Russia under President Donald Trump, who campaigned on his ability to strike bargains with Russian President Vladimir Putin that would serve U.S. interests.
Speaking before a Security Council meeting on chemical weapons in Syria, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said she was hopeful the council “could move forward” with the resolution.
“You are either for chemical weapons or you’re against it,” Haley said following a closed-door Security Council discussion on Syria’s chemical weapons. “How much longer is Russia going to continue to babysit and make excuses for the Syrian regime? People have died by being suffocated to death. That’s barbaric.”
She didn’t have to wait long. Asked whether Moscow would block the measure, Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, bluntly told reporters Friday: “Yes.… If it is tabled, we will veto it.”
The move comes as U.N.-brokered talks on Syria’s political future are underway in Geneva. The U.N. chief’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is trying to nail down an agreement to end the country’s nearly six-year civil war, which has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and driven millions of Syrian refugees into neighboring countries and Europe.
But getting the feuding factions to actually sit down and start hammering out a solution has proved elusive so far, prompting the U.N. chief to prod them into real negotiations.
“After six years of bloodshed, the secretary-general urges the Syrians who have accepted the invitation to be in Geneva to engage in good faith as the special envoy seeks to facilitate the process,” Stéphane Dujarric, chief spokesman for Secretary-General António Guterres, told reporters Thursday. “While acknowledging that progress will not be easy, the secretary-general believes strongly that only a political solution can bring peace to Syria and that all those Syrians who have committed themselves to this goal should redouble their efforts for peace.”
Despite their private push for quick action, the United States, Britain, and France have not set a deadline for a vote on the chemical weapons resolution, raising questions about whether the latest diplomatic gambit is partly a bid to force Russia to pressure its Syrian proxy to accept a negotiated end to the civil war.
France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, told reporters Friday that the sponsors of the resolution would monitor progress in the talks before calling for a vote. But he vowed that the resolution’s chief sponsors would eventually call a vote on the text. It is “not a question of if. The question is really when,” he said.
The United States and its Western partners have been mulling the possibility of forcing a Security Council vote on a sanctions resolution since last August. That’s when a team of international chemical weapons inspectors concluded that the Syrian air force had dropped barrel bombs containing chlorine or some other chemical agent on two opposition-controlled towns, Talmenes and Sarmin, in April 2014 and March 2015, respectively.
The Joint Investigative Mechanism — comprising experts from the U.N and The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — also concluded that the Islamic State fired rockets containing mustard gas at the opposition-held town of Marea in August 2015.
Even before President Trump’s inauguration, the Obama administration had pushed for the passage of the same resolution under consideration today. But British and French allies delayed action, fearing it could upend Syria cease-fire talks and rankle an incoming administration that appeared intent on bolstering relations with Russia. This time around, the United States has agreed to take the lead in co-sponsoring the resolution with Britain and France.
The draft resolution, which is intended to deter future attacks, condemns both the Syrian government and the Islamic State and demands they cease their use of chemical weapons. It would impose an asset freeze and a travel ban on 11 top Syrian military and intelligence officials, including the commanders of Syrian helicopter fleets linked to chlorine attacks in three Syrian towns.
The resolution also targets 10 Syrian entities, including the Scientific Studies and Research Center, which the United States and international inspectors believe is linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program. Syria has denied the institution is involved in the Syrian program. Further, it would restrict Syria from importing some commercial chemicals, including chlorine, that could be used as lethal — albeit still legal — chemical warfare agents.
Photo credit: JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch