Why a watered-down UN resolution on Syria may still not pass

The UN Security Council vote could come as early as Tuesday afternoon. The US and European powers support the 'better than nothing' resolution, which contains only the threat of sanctions against Syria.

Seth Wenig/AP
Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council Meeting at the 66th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters. Passage of a Syria resolution appears to depend on Russian confidence that the measure is not “regime change in disguise,” which is how Russia views the Western powers’ interpretation of a resolution on Libya earlier this year.

The United Nations Security Council is poised to vote as early as Tuesday afternoon on a resolution condemning state-sponsored violence in Syria and threatening international measures – though including none at this time – if the deadly repression of civilians does not stop.

Passage of the resolution appears to depend on Russian confidence that the measure is not “regime change in disguise,” which is how Russia views the Western powers’ interpretation of a resolution on Libya earlier this year.

The United States and European powers, which have pressed for Security Council action for months, support the “better than nothing” resolution as a way of finally putting the international community on the record on Syria.

“Better to get the view of the Security Council on record ... rather than to wait for a perfect moment that might not come,” says a senior Western diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss a vote that has not yet taken place.

The resolution “is not perfect” because it lacks any teeth such as economic sanctions or other actions, the diplomat says. But it would still be “positive” for sending a clear message to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a bid to avoid a promised Russian veto, European countries sponsoring the resolution stripped out the sanctions that an earlier version included. The watered-down text calls for unspecified “targeted measures” that could be imposed on Syria if the violence has not ceased within 30 days.

But Russia’s vote remained a question mark Monday, with Russian officials indicating they would not support the resolution – but keeping mum on whether they would veto it.

The Security Council did issue a presidential statement on Syria in August, although that action is considered much less consequential than an actual resolution. A resolution requires nine favorable votes from the 15-member Council and no vetoes from the five permanent members: the US, China, Britain, France, and Russia.

Russia has said for weeks it would oppose even the threat of international sanctions on Syria, based on what Russian officials describe as the bitter experience of seeing Western powers use a UN resolution passed on Libya earlier this year to justify NATO intervention.

Last week, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters in New York that his country was unable to support the revised draft resolution, even though it no longer included automatic sanctions, because its language still left the door open to an interpretation favoring regime change.

In that sense, Russia’s position has not softened over weeks of diplomatic wrangling on Syria. In late August, Ambassador Churkin said any Council action should be aimed at “moving things toward normalcy” rather than “creating more radical people among the Syrian opposition to pursue the slogan of regime change.”

Churkin says that Russia approved of a no-fly zone over Libya with the understanding that meant aircraft were not to be used in attacks on civilians. Instead, Western powers went beyond that interpretation to implement a bombing campaign in favor of Libya’s rebels, he says.

Still, some opposition groups in Syria are clamoring for the same kind of international intervention that buoyed Libya’s rebels.

A group of former Syrian Army soldiers calling themselves the Free Syrian Army is calling on the international community to implement a no-fly zone over a portion of Syria that could be the opposition’s haven. Also, earlier this week opponents of the Assad regime organized into the Syrian National Council, mirroring what is now Libya’s interim government, the Transitional National Council.

But the US and other Western powers say Syria is different from Libya and insist no one is envisioning military intervention. For one thing, the Arab League supported international action in Libya but has not in the case of Syria.

Regarding Libya, NATO had the “very broad backing of the neighborhood ... for military action,” the Western diplomat says. “But here we’re not talking about military action.”

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