Why UN gridlock on Syria could encourage Israel to attack Iran

If the UN Security Council can't take action against Syria, then Israel might well conclude that the council will be impotent to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. 

Jason DeCrow/AP
Portuguese representative Jose Filipe Moraes Cabral (l.) and South African representative Baso Sangqu (r.) glance at Russian representative Vitaly Churkin (c.) as they vote in support of a draft resolution backing an Arab League call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, which was later vetoed by Russia and China, during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at United Nations headquarters on Saturday.

As Israel continues a lively debate on whether or not to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, the downbeat view in diplomatic circles at the United Nations is that the Security Council’s gridlock on Syria increases the chances of an Israeli attack.

The diplomatic disarray over Syria sends the message that other daunting regional problems, such as the Iranian nuclear crisis, may also be out of reach of a negotiated solution, some diplomatic experts say. And with Russia so blatantly taking the side of its friend and client in the region, Syria's Assad government, Israel may well conclude that the same scenario would probably be repeated if world powers (including Russia) were to again try negotiating with Iran.

“The Security Council’s inability to act on Syria increases the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran,” says Michael Doyle, a former UN official now specializing in foreign and security affairs at Columbia University in New York. “Violence begets violence, and if Syria sinks into a civil war, which seems all the more likely now, Israel could see the growing instability as cover or as an added incentive to act."

"That’s all the more true,” he adds, “if the Security Council is nonfunctional.”

Israel’s calculations on Iran are just one area where the reverberations of Saturday’s veto by Russia and China of a Security Council resolution on Syria are likely to be felt. Russia appeared cognizant of the effect, on Tuesday sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Lavrov told Russian media that President Assad wants to end the violence in his country and will soon present a reform plan including a new constitution and free elections. But reports of attacks by government forces against civilian populations, particularly in the embattled city of Homs, continued to mount even as Lavrov concluded his visit.

Lavrov earlier qualified as “hysteria” the Western response to Russia’s veto – the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, called it “disgusting.” But the deep divide among world powers portends a rough period for global diplomacy that won’t go unnoticed by other countries caught in the Middle East’s tumult, including Israel.

“If the conclusion becomes unassailable that the US and Russia aren’t just going through a period of disagreement but have embarked on some deeper divide, it puts into question everything about the ‘reset' ” – President Obama’s revaluation of US-Russia relations, says Michael Oppenheimer, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “It also can’t help but comfort the Syrians and the Iranians.”

The problem, Professor Oppenheimer says, is that a sense among the Iranians that Russia will shield them as it did the Syrian regime “only makes a military confrontation more likely.”

“The more confidence the Iranians feel as a consequence of the Syria vote, the less likely they are to take the lessons they should be taking,” he says.

Mr. Obama continues to insist that diplomacy remains the best way to persuade Iran to change the course of its nuclear program. On Monday, he signed new measures aimed at causing the regime such pain that it is forced to accept a resumption of serious negotiations.

But some UN diplomats say they are worried that talks that appeared likely in the coming weeks may have been put off by the Syria discord.

In that climate, not only are talks between Iran and world powers more problematic, but stresses in the broader Middle East could increase, as well.

“The chances of spillover [of Syria’s conflict] are considerably higher,” he says. “Any sign of stepped-up assistance by the Russians to Syria could prompt Turkey or maybe Saudi Arabia to act on behalf of the rebels, and then the regional implications would multiply in all directions, and that includes Israel.”         

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