Russia dooms Western hopes for tough UN action against Syria

Western countries including the US say the United Nations needs to get tough on Syria for its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. But Russia appeared to block those plans Monday.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Susan Rice, US. Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to reporters in Washington Monday.

The United Nations said Monday that more than 2,600 Syrians have died in the Assad regime’s repression of pro-democracy protests, but the grim report seemed unlikely to boost prospects for international sanctions against the Syrian government.

The reason? Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday expressed publicly his opposition to any UN Security Council resolution on Syria that includes sanctions.

That leaves Russia and Western powers including the United States poles apart on Syria – and suspicious of the other side’s motivations.

Russia sees the West’s hardening stance towards the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and worries that tough Security Council action could open the door to the kind of armed intervention that NATO has undertaken in Libya. Western countries consider Russia’s historic ties to Syria and wonder if it isn’t trying to preserve a foothold in the Middle East – a suspicion bolstered by recent reports of a percolating Russia-Syria arms deal.

Mr. Medvedev said that any new resolution “mustn't automatically involve sanctions," adding that, "There is absolutely no need now for any additional pressure." Later, in a meeting with British Prime Minster David Cameron, Medvedev said a resolution was possible but would have to be “balanced.”

With Russia one of five permanent Security Council members who wield a veto over council action, Medvedev’s statements appeared to doom a resolution the US and European powers proposed last month. The resolution calls for an arms embargo and other sanctions aimed at stopping what the State Department has called Assad’s “despicable violence” against his own people.

On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said it was a “scandal” that the UN had so far failed to act on what he called a “terrible crisis.” He also acknowledged that Russia and other Security Council members including France remain divided over what action to take toward Syria.

With many world leaders gathering in New York later this month for the annual fall opening of the UN General Assembly, the US and its Western partners had hoped to avoid an embarrassing perception of inaction on Syria.

On Monday, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, told reporters that the Syrian government’s unrelenting attacks on civilians demonstrate that international sanctions on Syria are overdue. “We continue to think it is past time for the council to take action,” she said.

Russia says that while it does not oppose all council action on Syria, it wants any resolution to be “balanced” by sounding “tough” on both the government and the “extremists” – or “terrorists,” as Medvedev calls them – whom they believe are fomenting violence against the government.

Medvedev also says that the West “exceeded the mandate” of the Security Council’s resolution on Libya that called for protection of Libyan civilians, and he wants to be sure any Syria action would bar any outside military intervention.

The wrangling over UN action came as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that at least 2,600 Syrians have died in more than six months of repression there. Syria has barred Ms. Pillay’s investigators from entering the country and has turned away other international monitors, but Pillay told the council that the new UN death count is based on “reliable sources on the ground.”

Syrian officials responded with figures of their own, saying that 1,400 Syrians have died in the violence – with half of those being security forces under attack from “insurgents.”

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