This article appeared in The Guardian online on 23 May 2011, the first article in a series called “Power and Nations”
In contrast to action on Libya, the UN has been tardy and timid over Syria’s crackdown – thanks to the threat of a Russian veto
There are two reasons why the UN security council has failed, utterly, to react to Bashar al-Assad’s murder of hundreds of his own people in Syria. The first is that Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member, has indicated that it will block action. And the second is that the US won’t stand up to Russia.
Britain and France have been ready for some days to table a draft resolution condemning the Syrian dictator’s violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrations. But there has been something of a counter-reaction to the force and speed of the council’s rapid decisions on Libya, particularly its authorisation of military force. Colum Lynch, the indispensable UN commentator in Foreign Policy, has called this the Libya “hangover” – a feeling among some council members that the allies have gone “too far” in Libya, overstepping the limited authority to protect civilians in resolution 1973 to attack the Libyan regime itself.
For this reason, any UN resolution on Syria is likely to be less forceful than those on Libya – with condemnation, and an indication that if the violence against Syria’s people continues, there will be “further measures”, hinting at sanctions, and possibly referral to the International Criminal Court. It’s not as strong as the situation requires, but it is a start, which can be built upon. Perhaps this threat of further action, combined with US national and EU sanctions, will persuade Assad to stop. Perhaps.
But Russian diplomats have made clear that they will not abide even this mild step. This is not because Russia has a particularly valuable relationship with Damascus – and Russia’s role in the Middle East is often overstated. Russia’s claimed reason is that the UN must limit its interference in states’ sovereign internal politics. In reality, the reason is more tawdry – and openly discussed in the corridors of the UN. It is not a “hangover” from Libya; it is “total payback”, as one diplomat told me. Russia wants everyone to know that its acquiescence in western military action in Libya should not have been abused, and now it won’t play along on Syria. It’s a diplomatic version of playground politics – and no more admirable. And the Syrian people are the victims.
It’s part of a longstanding post-Soviet tradition in Russian diplomacy of meanspirited, tit-for-tat obstructionism with little regard to the facts on the ground. Russia blocked UN reaction to Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. Having assented to the years-long UN diplomatic process to decide Kosovo’s final status, Russia abruptly refused to accept its independence in 2007, and later recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a bizarre kind of retribution (as this Pravda article makes clear).
This “cold war lives on” tradition is also evident in Russia’s continuing and baseless complaints about US missile defence plans; only this week, President Medvedev threatened to build up Russia’s nuclear forces and scrap arms treaties, claiming without evidence that the planned anti-missile systems are “aimed at Russia”. We are a proud country, Russian leaders repeatedly say: mess with us, and we will make you pay – if necessary, on a totally-unconnected issue. The west’s own duplicity and game-playing at the UN in recent years – above all, on Iraq – has given Russia some (but not much) excuse for this pettiness. The UN’s inaction over Syria speaks yet again of lingering mistrust of western motives.
Russia’s position is inexcusable in the face of the mass killing of peaceful demonstrators in Syria. Unfortunately, they are getting away with it. The Europeans want to table the resolution and force Russia, if it persists with its threat to veto, to explain why exactly it is protecting Assad’s murderous behaviour from international censure. By quickly tabling the resolutions on Libya, the Europeans managed to sweep away Russian and Chinese objections with the momentum of international concern at Gaddafi’s repression (the US was very late in that game, too). But this time, the US is again holding back, concerned that a Russian veto will make things worse – by signalling to Damascus that they can get away with murder.
This is a legitimate concern. When I was on the security council, I believed that you shouldn’t table resolutions before privately ensuring that there were enough votes for adoption (a prerogative that the UK ignored when it tabled the famous failed second war-authorising resolution on Iraq: I had left the mission by then!). But times have changed. There is a new mood in the air. Even the Chinese can sense it and, I understand, are unlikely to veto action on Syria. Not only the US is recalculating its interests in the Middle East in these dramatic days. Standing up for dictators doesn’t seem so clever, especially if the democrats eventually win.
The Russians should be shown up for their tactics at the UN; put the resolution to the vote. My bet is that it will pass. And if the Russians do veto it, everyone will know who to blame.
While, down the road in Washington, President Obama is declaring his condemnation of al-Assad and solidarity with Arab protests, US caution at the UN in New York sends a very different and timid message. Diplomats’ calculations that the UN’s response to mass killings in Syria is somehow linked to resolutions on Libya, and obeisance to Russia’s amour-propre, remind people of what they most hate about diplomacy: that it is not about the reality of soldiers killing civilians on Syria’s streets, but instead about diplomatic games in distant chambers.
The fate of Syria’s benighted people should, of course, be the only issue at stake here. For their sake, I hope that very soon the diplomats get back to reality.