Russia Blocks UN Action in Syria

By Casey L. Coombs

Bashar al-Assad's six-month-old assault on Syrian civilians has killed at least 2,600 people with thousands more arbitrarily arrested, forcibly “disappeared,” and tortured by government agents. Finally, Western members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) drafted a sanctions resolution that included asset freezes, travel bans, an arms embargo, and the threat of referring the Assad’s government to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But Russia refuses to sign on, allowing Damascus to continue its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Russia’s insistence on doing nothing delays the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people and increases the international community’s complicity in the murders.

The UNSC condemned the "widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians" on Aug. 3 in a presidential statement, and a sobering report by the UN Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission "found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity." Still, Moscow blocks sanctions on Syria.

The UNSC's Western powers—France, Germany, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States—must now face off against Russia's Permanent Representative to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, who boycotted a closed-door meeting on the draft two days after its release.

Under most other circumstances, Russia’s reluctance to dole out sanctions would come as little surprise, given the Kremlin’s aversion to meddling in the internal affairs of others. But as Churkin’s response to Muammar Gaddafi’s iron-fisted crackdown illustrated only months earlier, the wave of popular uprisings sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East represents an exceptional threat to international peace and security which, if ignored, could lead to a region-wide revolution. Not even two weeks into the Libyan revolts, he voted in favor of UNSC Resolution 1970, which contained many of the same punitive actions sought in the Western draft on Syria as well as a referral of the situation to the ICC. Three weeks later, on March 17, he “abstained” on Resolution 1973’s authorization of a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, essentially paving the way for military intervention on behalf of the rebel forces.

Why the volte-face when it comes to Syria? In the last week of August, outside Security Council chambers, Ambassador Churkin explained, “When we were voting for 1970 and especially 1973, I think most of the members of the Council did not anticipate that things were going to happen the way they have actually happened. When we were voting for a no-fly zone, what we meant was that aircraft should not be used in this conflict because among other things it can harm civilians.”

In other words, in Russia’s mind, NATO’s support of anti-Gaddafi rebels—now taking Tripoli’s helm as the National Transitional Council (NTC)—was a gross overstep of 1973’s mandate.

“If the Security Council is to continue to play a role,” Churkin continued, “it should be a role moving things toward normalcy rather than towards sort of creating more chasms and creating more radical people among the Syrian opposition to pursue the slogan of regime change.”

Unfortunately for the West, Churkin’s prescription for normalcy is supported by other influential members on the Council. Brazil, India, China, and South Africa, who along with Russia form a group known as the BRICS, have lined up with their Russian colleague to sing an anti-sanctions refrain. India’s Permanent UN Representative Hardeep Singh Puri, says, “I’m not in favor of sanctions in the best of times,” and South Africa’s UN Ambassador Baso Sangqu insists on giving Assad more time to implement promised reforms before resorting to coercive measures; Each member of the BRICS has stressed the need to tread cautiously in the wake of Resolution 1973.

So are UNSC sanctions off the table for good? That depends on one’s definition of sanctions. On Aug. 26, out of the blue, Mr. Churkin circulated his own draft resolution. “It is exactly in the same philosophy as the PRST (the UNSC’s presidential statement),” he stressed to reporters.

Western diplomats, however, see it differently: “It is productive that they are now engaged with the idea of the Council adopting a resolution,” UK Deputy Ambassador Philip Parham says, “but we have big problems with what they have suggested.” Others Western officials close to negotiations characterize the Russian draft as “weaker” than the Aug. 3 statement. Indeed, it merely urges a national dialogue, Parham says, and “[c]alls upon the Syrian government to expedite the implementation of the announced reforms.”

Achieving a compromise with teeth requires Russia to change its mind. But that will be an uphill battle considering the mutually beneficial relationship Moscow has fostered with Damascus since the Soviet era, which has provided the former a toehold in the highly contested Middle East and the latter an influential ally and a steady stream of arms.

Beijing, by contrast, has far fewer ties to Damascus, and thus less incentive to backup the rogue regime should Russia lean Westward. And wherever the two permanent members go, IBSA (the non-permanent members of the BRICS: India, Brazil, and South Africa) are likely to follow, in order to nurture the alliance that will continue to reap dividends once their two-year UNSC stints are up. As a result, Russia is now the West’s key to the BRICS and, by extension, to Syrian sanctions.

Ralph Winnie, Jr. of the Eurasia Center, a think-tank, notes, “As far as Russia is concerned, there is very little possibility that they will move from their position of strength and influence with Syria. Historically, they have only shifted position when events dictated. Russia will negotiate, but only on their terms.”

As Assad continues his violent crackdown—despite unfulfilled promises of reforms, mounting bilateral sanctions from the United States and the European Union, and a growing list of condemnations from regional groups and neighboring states—UNSC sanctions are increasingly appropriate. Indeed, Syria’s self-determined demonstrators have even begun to reach out to the international community.

By starving Assad's killing machine of financial and military resources not covered by U.S. and European Union bans, UNSC sanctions would at once end the international community's complicity in his attacks and force him to engage the Syrian demonstrators in non-violent ways. Internationally sponsored sanctions would also defang rhetoric flowing from Damascus that the uprisings are a Western-orchestrated conspiracy. And as for Ambassador Churkin’s charge that the Western draft would create “more radical people among the Syrian opposition to pursue the slogan of regime change,” Assad is accomplishing that feat well enough on his own.

The 15-nation Council may not have a responsibility to protect Syrian demonstrators through collective use of force, but it does have a responsibility not to stand idly by while Assad repeats the atrocities of his father, whose forces killed upwards of 40,000 people in the 1982 Hama massacre.



Casey L. Coombs has a Master's in International Affairs from the University of Utah and is the UN correspondent for the Diplomatic Courier. He can be followed on Twitter at @Macoombs.

[Photo: Maggie Osama/Flickr]

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