Why Russia might veto a UN resolution to condemn Syria crackdown

France is expected to forward the resolution to the Security Council Wednesday. But Russia worries that the resolution could be used to intervene in Syria as NATO did in Libya.

Denis Balibouse/REUTERS/File
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses a news conference at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva May 11. Ban urged Syria to halt mass arrests of antigovernment protesters and to heed calls for reform. France is expected to forward a resolution on the subject to the UN Security Council Wednesday.

The United Nations Security Council will consider a French proposal Wednesday afternoon formally to condemn the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad over an increasingly bloody crackdown on dissidents.

The discussion and eventually a vote by the council on a resolution signals Syria’s growing isolation from the international community, which is losing patience with President Assad over his dual track of promising political reforms while stepping up repression.

But passage of a resolution by the 15-member Security Council has been thrown into doubt by Russia, which feels burned by how Western powers have interpreted a March resolution targeting Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi as a green light for NATO’s military mission in Libya. As one of five permanent members of the council – along with the US, France, Great Britain, and China – Russia has veto power over council actions.

European officials say the aim of a resolution is not to open the way to another military intervention, but to send a strong message to Assad that the state-sponsored violence must stop. A resolution would also provide the basis for the European Union, and perhaps others, to proceed to additional economic sanctions against Syria.

But Russia’s concerns about where a resolution might lead have been fed by the growing similarities of the Libyan and Syrian situations, some regional experts say.

The Security Council approved a resolution on Libya, including authorization for a no-fly zone, after Qaddafi launched attacks inside the country and announced intentions to wipe out the political opposition.

Syria’s Assad has publicly been more circumspect than Qaddafi. But reports have mushroomed of killings and detentions of Syrian civilians at the hands of the military. And on Wednesday Syrian journalists reported that the Army was massing outside Jisr al-Shughur, a northern border town where the government claimed armed insurrectionists killed more than 120 Syrian soldiers over the weekend.

Other sources, including residents of the town, said the bloodshed resulted largely from the Syrian military moving against defecting soldiers and officers.

Perhaps another reason for Russia’s reluctance to back a resolution is that France has adopted the view that Assad has lost his legitimacy as a ruler and must go. “The situation is very clear. In Syria, the process of reform is dead and we think that Bashar has lost his legitimacy to rule the country," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told a gathering at Washington’s Brookings Institution Tuesday.

The US and Britain have not gone that far yet, saying that Assad is increasingly at risk of losing his legitimacy if he does not reverse course and proceed with the political reforms he has proposed.

One reason for the reluctance to completely write off Assad is that no organized opposition exists in Syria – and the US and other powers worry more about the potential regional repercussions of a civil war in Syria than they did in the case of Libya.

“Yes, we too are concerned about the possibility of a civil war in Syria,” says a senior European diplomat. “In Syria there is no [organized transitional political council] to turn to as there was in Libya.”

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