With world powers playing a bit of brinksmanship over international action on Syria, Syria’s largest opposition coalition is presenting an ultimatum of its own: Either the UN Security Council passes a resolution with real consequences targeting President Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s violence, or the opposition will turn elsewhere for the means to defend itself and the Syrian people.
The implication of the opposition’s message is that the Security Council’s failure to finally act on a crisis that has left it paralyzed for over a year will lead to the full-blown civil war and wider regional conflict that world powers say they dread.
“What we are saying here is that if there is no possibility of counting on what is the legitimate mandate of the United Nations Security Council, then we have other options,” says Bassma Kodmani, head of foreign relations for the Syrian National Council (SNC) executive office. “If the door is closed in the face of the Syrian people, then we need to explore other scenarios.”
Dr. Kodmani is part of an SNC delegation meeting at the UN in New York this week with members of the Security Council in the run-up to an anticipated vote on a resolution to extend the mandate of the UN’s observer mission in Syria.
Western powers are demanding that any extension of the monitoring mission fall under a UN Charter provision – the charter’s Chapter 7 – that authorizes consequences for noncompliance that could run from economic sanctions to, eventually, the use of force. Russia, which has already vetoed two resolutions on Syria over the course of the crisis, says it wants only a reauthorization of the 300-member mission charged with monitoring the “cease-fire” that was supposed to have taken effect under international Syria envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
The monitoring mission’s mandate expires Friday. But by Tuesday afternoon and as intensive negotiations continued, it appeared a vote on a Syria resolution set for Wednesday would lapse until at least Thursday.
Speaking Tuesday afternoon with a group of journalists, Dr. Kodmani said her organization supports a resolution under Chapter 7 as a “very last chance to breathe life into the Annan peace plan.” She also said it is the only way for the Security Council to convince the Assad regime that the international community is serious about halting violence that has left more than 17,000 Syrians dead – more than 4,000 of those since Mr. Annan’s plan for a cease-fire and a political transition was launched effect in April.
The Syrian delegation members say they relayed the same message to the Russian officials they met in New York this week and to those, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they met with in Moscow last week: a failure to include “enforcement measures” in a Syria resolution would send a message of a weak UN unable to manage international security crises.
Another Russian veto of a Syria resolution would “send the wrong message back to both the regime and the Syrian people,” Kodmani said they told their Russian interlocutors. The Assad regime would hear that it is “free to continue the violence, continue the massacres,” she said, while the Syrian people would hear the international community saying, “We cannot do anything for you, you will have to fight [this] out.”
On Monday Mr. Lavrov said in Moscow that the West’s pressure for a Chapter 7 resolution – which Russia fears would lead to foreign intervention in Syria of the type that occurred in Libya – is “a kind of blackmail” and he gave every suggestion that Russia would not alter its stance.
But after Annan, a former UN secretary-general, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday in Moscow, Mr. Lavrov softened his words and suggested a compromise might yet be found between the two positions on the council. “Russia is ready to work” with its council counterparts, Lavrov said.
At the New York press conference, Kodmani was not specific about the “alternative scenarios” the Syrian opposition would pursue in the absence of forceful Security Council action.
But the implications from her and from background comments made by other SNC officials with her were clear: Syria’s opposition would have no choice but to turn directly to regional supporters who would see the council’s inaction as a green light to more robust arming and protective measures for the Syrian civilian population.
Kodmani said the SNC would also like any resolution to demand unimpeded access across Syria for international humanitarian aid – Syrian authorities have been blocking aid and denying visas to aid workers – and to provide for referring the regime’s “criminals” who have been killing Syrian civilians to the International Criminal Court.
This last demand is unlikely to have traction at this point under any scenario, but it does suggest where the opposition has its sights set as it moves forward.