Russia is laying to rest any thoughts that its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might be wavering: It is championing the Assad regime’s position in a United Nations probe of alleged chemical weapons use in the Syria conflict, and blasting as “illegal” the official recognition of the Syrian opposition by some countries.
At the same time, Britain and France are advocating providing Western military assistance to the rebels, and urging the United States to drop its opposition to joining such a plan.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in Paris Wednesday, got a bit of direct pressure from the French, who want the US to at least provide nonlethal logistical assistance if the Britain and France provide the heavy weapons the rebels want.
The result of this standoff between camps of world powers is that the Syrian conflict, which the UN says has already claimed more than 70,000 lives and driven hundreds of thousands of Syrians into neighboring countries, seems likely to drag on for some time.
“It’s hard to see the conditions or sequence of events that lead to a quick end to this war, which is one reason there is so much emphasis on maintaining the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” says one UN official.
At the UN, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is assembling the team and finalizing other details of the investigation he ordered last week into allegations from both camps in the Syria war that chemical weapons were used in Aleppo in northern Syria.
But Russia is complicating Secretary General Ban’s already politically sensitive task, demanding that the team of investigators include representatives from the five permanent members of the Security Council – in other words that Russia and China, which have repeatedly blocked UN action against Mr. Assad, be guaranteed a hand in the investigation.
At one point, Russia even briefly insisted that the investigation be called off. That came after Britain and France urged Ban to extend the investigation to all claims of chemical weapons use in Syria and not limit it to the Aleppo incident earlier this month.
Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters earlier this week that the investigation team would be made up of experts from two international organizations – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the World Health Organization. On Tuesday, Mr. Nesirky announced that Ban had named Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who was part of the team that investigated allegations that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, as head of the Syria investigation.
Nesirky also said that the investigation will focus on technical issues and on determining whether or not chemical weapons were used – and not on determining who used them.
President Obama has said the use of chemical weapons in the Syria conflict would be a “red line” for the US. Some regional analysts speculate that a determination that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons would trigger deeper US involvement in the conflict, perhaps a US decision to arm the rebels.
The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, hinted as much in a statement last week supporting Ban’s decision to launch an investigation. “If Bashar al-Assad and those under his command make the mistake of using chemical weapons, or fail to meet their obligation to secure them, then there will be consequences,” Ambassador Rice said
It was the Syrian regime that originally requested that Ban launch an investigation of the Aleppo incident. But according to some analysts, Russia now wants to make sure that the investigation doesn’t end up a pretext for Western intervention in the conflict – in the way the US used allegations of Iraq’s (as it turned out, nonexistent) WMDs to launch the Iraq invasion.
But Russia is not limiting its unflagging support for Assad to the chemical weapons investigation.
Moscow reacted swiftly this week when the Arab League turned Syria's seat in the organization over to the opposition, and as Qatar – which was hosting an Arab League summit – gave the Syrian opposition the keys to Syria’s embassy in Doha, the Qatari capital. Russia said it was "illegal" and "anti-Syrian" for Qatar to hand over the embassy.
The Assad regime said Qatar had illegally given the embassy to a band of “bandits and thugs,” and the official Syrian news agency SANA reacted by calling Qatar “the biggest bank for supporting terrorism in the region.” Assad regularly dismisses the opposition battling him as “terrorists.”
Some UN diplomats say Russia – which at one point last year seemed to be softening its support for Assad – has recently “tacked harder” toward the regime’s defense, as one diplomat says.
That hardening has convinced the UN’s special representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, that his goal of getting even some minimal form of Security Council action on Syria remains unrealistic.
And that sidelining of the special representative’s role in trying to reach some political settlement of the Syrian war has only added to a resignation that the diplomatic stalemate – and the violence – are not about to end.