UN chief calls Syrian violence 'horrific,' so why is a resolution so elusive?

Opposition is building to a UN resolution condemning Syria, a reaction to the Libya vote and the result of assertiveness by emerging powers Brazil and India. To many, the UN appears absent.

By , Staff writer

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    A Syrian refugee woman brings laundry to an irrigation canal in a camp, in Boynuyogun, Turkey, Tuesday. According to the Turkish Prime Minister's office the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey stands at more than 8,500 people.
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That Western plans for a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the violence in Syria would run into a brick wall of resistance from traditional naysayers China and Russia is not much of a surprise.

But now emerging powers like Brazil and India are adding their bricks to that wall, casting into doubt passage of a resolution despite what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls “horrific” violence against the Syrian people by their own government.

Resistance to a Syria resolution is characterized by some UN experts as “blowback” from Security Council action in March on Libya, which led to NATO’s intervention in the North African country’s conflict. Brazil – which currently occupies one of the council’s 10 rotating seats – has said publicly that its reluctance to support a Syria resolution reflects its disagreement with Western powers’ interpretation of the council’s second Libya resolution as a green light for intervention in a country’s internal conflict.

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For others, the willingness of a Brazil to stand up to the council’s traditional Western powers portends diplomatic challenges ahead.

“You always had to get nine votes, it’s always been politics beyond the permanent five” members of the council, the US, France, Great Britain, Russia, and China, says Michael Doyle, a UN expert at Columbia University in New York. “What’s new is the strikingly more independent and self-assertive roles some of the new emerging world powers are playing.”

Resolution caught in stalemate

The result is that a resolution many thought would have passed by now is instead caught in a stalemate ­– and the UN is being widely viewed as absent on Syria, even as the violence there continues and even escalates.

Last week, on a visit to Washington and New York, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé suggested a resolution would be put to a vote in the 15-member council within days. But a vote on the resolution – sponsored by France, Germany, Great Britain, and Portugal – remained up in the air Tuesday, with the sponsors unwilling to seek a vote unless assured of at least a minimum nine-vote passage and no veto from either Russia or China.

Although the Syria resolution is sponsored by the council’s European members, the US is a strong behind-the-scenes supporter of the measure. The sponsoring countries are emphasizing to the council’s reluctant members that their resolution is designed to increase pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but contains none of the coercive measures – like authorization of a no-fly zone – found in the second Libya resolution.

The failure to get the Security Council to act on even a weak Syria resolution has opened the door to Obama administration critics, who say the president’s preference for “engagement” with America’s adversaries and nice-guy diplomacy is showing its limits.

“Diplomacy isn’t always about being nice, you have to be tough and be able to close the deal,” says Richard Grenell, an international public affairs consultant in Los Angeles who served as spokesman to four US ambassadors to the UN. “With Syria now a real peace and security challenge for a very volatile region, getting a tough Security Council resolution should be a no-brainer,” he adds, “but this administration’s strategy is clearly not working.”

Criticism for US ambassador

Mr. Grenell, who served in the Bush administration and at the UN under then-US Ambassador John Bolton, says President Obama promised smoother sailing for US priorities at the UN through a strategy of “engagement” and dialogue that “would get our enemies to go along with us.”

He is especially critical of the current US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, adding, “Being Miss Nice does not produce the votes,” and noting that the second Libya resolution only “squeaked by” with 10 votes in favor.

Some UN experts like Columbia’s Mr. Doyle say ongoing debate over reform of the Security Council and calls for expanding the number of permanent members also has an impact in high-profile issues like Libya and Syria.

That’s true, says Grenell, but he insists that US diplomats should be able to play the expansion debate to America’s advantage. “It should work in our favor, because we should be able to prompt countries that want a permanent seat on the council to show they can act responsibly,” he says, “and we should be able to utilize that desire in favor of America’s priorities.”

On the other hand, rising powers also have to prove their stuff to audiences at home – and that, says Doyle, can mean standing up to the US.

“If prospects for council reform [and expansion of permanent seats] were good, I’d say, 'Yes, our diplomats ought to be able to use that to our advantage,' ” Doyle says. “But the fact is, those prospects aren’t very good. And in that situation,” he adds, “these countries may think more about their domestic audiences and about sending a message of independence from the US."

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