Syria resolution at UN: who got what they wanted, who didn't

The UN resolution on Syria's chemical weapons, which could be approved Friday night, calls their use 'a threat to international peace and security.' But the US also made concessions to Russia.

UN experts arrive to the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. A team of UN chemical weapons inspectors returned to Damascus on Wednesday to complete their investigation into what the UN calls 'pending credible allegations' of chemical weapons use in Syria's civil war.

The United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons that the United States and Russia have agreed on is a clear victory for the long global campaign to rid the world of chemical warfare.

The resolution, which still must be adopted by the full 15-member council, includes a provision stating that “the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security.” That language in effect puts rogue states and militant organizations on notice that the world’s powers will not tolerate chemical weapons use anywhere.

“That language has meaning,” says a senior State Department official, calling it the first time the world’s security body will be defining chemical weapons as such a threat to “international order” that their use should entail consequences.

The resolution, which could be approved as early as Friday evening, when the full Security Council is scheduled to meet, establishes a “new norm” against the use of chemical weapons, says Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN.

Yet while that may ultimately figure as a significant step for the world, the resolution also has its winners and losers as it pertains specifically to Syria and its deadly civil war, international affairs experts and some officials say.

Russia is a clear winner and even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes out better than might have been expected a few weeks ago, when President Obama was threatening imminent military action to punish the Assad regime over a large-scale chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21. Now Mr. Assad is in effect enlisted as a partner in what could turn out to be a year-long effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.

But the US – which insists that addressing the Syria crisis, from the chemical weapons to the broader civil war, is not a zero-sum game – is also registering its wins.

The resolution will bind the UN and the Security Council to the Syria crisis in a way that Russia has resisted up to now. After many acrimonious debates and three vetoed Syria resolutions since the war started in March 2011, the council is now affirming the role it has to play in Syria.

Calling the resolution “utterly unimaginable” a few weeks ago, Ambassador Power cites the significance of council action that for the first time will impose any kind of binding obligations on Syria.

But that does not mean the US is getting everything it wanted.

Most glaringly, the resolution does not include a trigger for automatic consequences – in the form of military action or sanctions, for example – in the event of noncompliance. That is a victory for Russia, which refused to accept language sought by the US and other Western powers that would have enforced automatic penalties over any breach by Syria of its agreement to give up its chemical weapons.

The resolution states that “in the event of noncompliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Security Council can decide to “impose measures under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.”

What that means is that the Council could decide to enforce the resolution with military action or sanctions, but such action would require a second resolution from the council. And Russia, which has vetoed any resolutions targeting the Assad regime over the course of the 2-1/2-year-old civil war, is likely to do the same over any future enforcement measures, most Russia analysts say.

US officials insist the resolution is worded in a way to guarantee accountability for any breach. “This resolution makes clear there will be consequences for noncompliance,” Power said Thursday night.

But some critics condemn the resolution as a backing down by the US and the West that could send the wrong signal not just to Mr. Assad but to other countries in the region.

“While we all want a verifiable diplomatic solution to Syria’s chemical weapons, the lack of enforcement measures makes me highly skeptical of Russia’s willingness to impose real consequences on Syria for noncompliance,” says Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Sounding leery of potential repercussions from a resolution without automatic triggers, he says, “It’s important that we reinforce our broader national interests for stability in Syria and reassure our allies of US resolve to counter other threats, especially from Iran.”

More broadly, the Syria resolution advances the global ban on chemical weapons – which Obama likes to say is honored by 98 percent of the world – by ultimately eliminating one of the largest remaining stockpiles. 

And it gives a new higher profile to the UN agency that oversees implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1925. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, will be responsible for the mission that inspects and then destroys Syria’s stockpiles.

The OPCW’s executive council in The Hague was expected to finalize a document as early as Friday outlining the many complex ­– and in the case of Syria, which is in the midst of a civil war, dangerous – steps the agency must undertake in Syria.

Once that’s approved, the Security Council is then expected to quickly approve its resolution giving international legal backing to the plan.

That will be a step that both Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin can claim as a victory: Obama, because he has promoted the prohibition and ultimate destruction of all weapons of mass destruction from the outset of his presidency; and Putin, because he has one eye on extremist separatist groups in Russia, and in part because of that shares the Western powers’ red line concerning chemical weapons use.

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