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How Trump and Putin Weakened U.N. Bid for a Global Cease-Fire

U.S. officials worry that counterterrorism operations will be constrained.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters during a cease-fire
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad during a cease-fire on Oct. 18, 2019. Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images

For several weeks, the United States and Russia have quietly opposed efforts by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and key Western allies to promote a sweeping global cease-fire aimed at urging all countries and armed groups in conflict to “silence the guns” and devote their attention to battling the coronavirus pandemic, according to interviews with several diplomatic sources.

Both Washington and Moscow have assured their counterparts that they favor cease-fires in a range of conflict zones, from Libya to Syria and Yemen. But both governments fear that a universal cease-fire proposed by the U.N. chief could potentially constrain their own efforts to mount what they consider legitimate counterterrorism operations overseas. The United States is also concerned that a blanket cease-fire could inhibit Israel’s ability to engage in military operations throughout the Middle East.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday announced progress in negotiations with the leaders of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council on its first resolution addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

The resolution is expected to promote limited cease-fires in conflict zones being monitored by the 15-nation council. But it will not endorse the U.N. chief’s appeal for a universal global cease-fire. It will include an exemption for states to continue to carry out military operations against individuals and armed groups designated as terrorists by the U.N. Security Council.

Macron said he is still trying to secure support for the resolution from Putin. “President Xi Jinping confirmed to me he agrees. President Trump confirmed to me he agrees. Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed to me he agrees,” Macron said in an interview with Radio France International. “I think President Putin will agree too.” Macron is hoping to announce an agreement on the measures in a virtual summit among the leaders of the U.N. Security Council’s five veto-wielding members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

The U.S. pushback against a globally encompassing cease-fire may come from the Trump administration’s increasingly heavy dependence on elite counterterrorism operations and covert strikes to kill Islamic State and Iranian-linked military operatives over the past six months.

“I don’t think we can both have an AUMF to take direct military action against them and sign a global peace agreement,” a former senior Trump administration official told Foreign Policy, referring to the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, a legal mandate that allows U.S. strikes against al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other affiliated groups. “It may actually challenge the AUMF,” the former official added when asked about potential Pentagon opposition to the U.N.’s push.

But the working initiative may limit the Trump administration’s ability to go after senior Iranian military figures, experts say, after a U.S. drone strike in January killed Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq’s capital. “You have the added difficulty that the U.S. engaging in most of its counterterrorism operations is very opportunistic,” said Scott Anderson, a former State Department attorney during the Obama administration now with the Brookings Institution. “There’s often a narrow window that they have to act in. There may be hesitance to say we’re categorically not going to pursue these.” The United States could still justify strikes against Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq on self-defense grounds, Anderson added.

With the U.N. Security Council unable to act, Guterres delivered a March 23 appeal “to warring parties” across the globe: “pull back from hostilities. … Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes. This is crucial to help create corridors for life-saving aid, to open precious windows for diplomacy, to bring hope to places among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.”

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said. “That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global cease-fire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

The initiative has proved popular, gaining endorsements from scores of governments, key regional organizations, and political and religious leaders, including Pope Francis, and even prompting some warring parties to enter into a series of imperfect cease-fire arrangements.

On April 2, a coalition of 193 international private charities, religious organizations, and human rights groups endorsed the U.N. chief’s appeal for a global cease-fire and urged him to use his influence to persuade the Security Council to follow suit.

“[W]e are concerned that the UN Security Council has yet to take action,” according to the joint letter. “We believe that you are best-placed to drive for unity in the Council and help Council members overcome disagreements on language, including attempts to attribute blame, and to use counter-terrorism narratives to exempt member state compliance.”

The council’s five veto-wielding powers have been more ambivalent.

For instance, Beijing has supported the council’s push for a more limited cease-fire. But it also distributed a diplomatic note to colleagues welcoming Guterres’s initiative.

“China firmly supports the leadership of the Secretary-General in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and attaches great importance to his Appeal for Global Ceasefire,” according to a Chinese “non-paper” distributed to U.N. ambassadors on Thursday by China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun. “China calls on the parties to support and act on this initiative to buy time for prevention and containment, open up space for cooperation and create conditions for political solutions.”

Kelly Knight Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke warmly of Guterres’s call for a “global cease-fire” in a Thursday morning interview with NPR, citing it as evidence that the United Nations has been active for months in trying to respond to the crisis. She said she hoped that negotiations over the French-drafted resolution—which she said would support a pause in fighting—could be finished by the end of the week, or early next week.

“The United States supports the Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire, but have noted that we will continue to fulfill our legitimate counterterrorism mission,” a State Department spokesman told Foreign Policy.

Behind the scenes, U.S. negotiators have contributed to delaying agreement on the French pandemic and cease-fire resolution. The United States initially insisted the text make clear that the coronavirus originated in China and that it should be described in the resolution as the “Wuhan virus”—a stance that was all but certain to trigger a Chinese veto.

The French have since persuaded the Americans to drop that demand. But the United States has refused to back an explicit endorsement of the U.N. chief’s global cease-fire initiative, forcing Paris to come up with a more limited cease-fire proposal. The United States also declined to join a list of more than 70 countries, including close allies such as Britain, France, and Germany, that co-signed a letter welcoming the secretary-general’s call for a cease-fire.

Earlier this week, the United States raised new objections to a provision in the French resolution that expressed support for the work the World Health Organization is doing to suppress the spread of the pandemic. The new U.S. position followed an announcement by Trump to hold U.S. funding to the health agency, pending a review of alleged-pro Chinese bias at the WHO. China and Russia, meanwhile, have argued for strengthening language supporting the WHO’s role in fighting the pandemic. As of Friday, the issue had not been resolved.

But Macron has portrayed Russia as the lone standout. Russia has also opposed a sweeping cease-fire, arguing that it needs to have the freedom to conduct counterterrorism operations in places like Syria.

“We support the respective statement by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres of March 23,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The ministry urged “all parties to regional armed conflicts to immediately stop hostilities, secure a ceasefire, and introduce a humanitarian pause,” but added: “We are highly concerned over the situation on territories controlled by terrorist groups, who could not care less about people’s wellbeing. These zones might potentially become most prone to the spread of the infection. We are confident that counter-terrorist measures must be carried on.”

Staff writers Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

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

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