UN quibbles while Syria burns

Jan. 31, 2012
Toronto Star
Olivia Ward

Bitter disagreements in the United Nations Security Council were a fact of life in the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union squared off with the U.S. and its allies over resolutions that stepped on geopolitical toes.

But on Tuesday, the threat of a Russian veto on a measure to end Syria’s worsening violence sparked barely contained anger from top Western diplomats, and chilled relations with Moscow to their lowest temperature in years.

“We all have a choice,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a controlled, but frosty, statement. “Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there.”

The split in the Security Council postponed the vote that Clinton, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and British Foreign Secretary William Hague had travelled to New York to promote. They pointed out that while the council deliberated, some 100 more people were killed in Syrian violence that has already taken a toll of thousands.

The resolution calls on President Bashar Assad to hand power to his deputy and give way to a national unity government. It follows a blueprint for democratization by the Arab League, which has tried to mediate the spiralling crisis.

But the disagreement between Russia — backed by China — and the West and Arab League over what Moscow calls “a path to civil war” left Russia more isolated, and raised questions of why it has drawn such a hard line on a measure that carries no sanctions for its ally Syria, and rejects military intervention.

The resolution calls for “transparent and free” elections to be held after a transitional period, and full co-operation of the authorities in a national dialogue. It also demands that Syria allow an unfettered UN inquiry into human rights violations, and grant access for delivery of humanitarian aid.

But Russia stonewalled the measure, saying it agreed with some of the provisions but has introduced its own resolution that does not try to “impose a solution” on Syria.

Its UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said Syrian government and opposition representatives should come to Moscow for talks on ending the crisis.

“The council should be guided by the principle of non-intervention,” he said. “We won’t stand for the use of (its) tool box to foster conflict or fuel future conflict.”

Analysts say Moscow’s opposition springs partly from its fear of international momentum for regime change at a time of continuing protests in Russia and calls for greater democracy and openness. And it worries the West will repeat its Libyan military intervention, which ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Regime change would disrupt Russia’s relations with Syria, an ally that has allowed it to operate a naval base in the region.

“It’s Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East at the moment,” says Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute in Washington. “But (Moscow) also has concrete interests there.”

Russia’s objections to a plan on which the Arab League has staked its reputation puts it in an “uncomfortable position” with those countries, he added. But it is trying to make a role for itself as a Middle Eastern power broker.

“We’re not ecstatic about Mr. Assad, who always makes promises and does not keep his word, but we are convinced that Assad and Syrian society can talk to each other and the political dialogue has not been exhausted,” the Russian parliament’s deputy foreign affairs chairman Konstantin Kosachev told the BBC.

Syria is also a client of Moscow, which by some estimates sells 10 per cent of its arms to Damascus.

“Making deals with the Bashar Assad regime is a kind of lottery,” Fyodor Lukyanov, of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, wrote in a column in RIA Novosty.

“If the government does not hold out, the contract will go down the drain because the new rulers that step in will not pick up where they left off. If the regime survives, there is an opportunity to profit.”

With Prime Minister Vladimir Putin making a renewed run for the presidency in March, he may also see a mediation role as a boost for his sagging profile.

“Russia believes the fall of Assad would eliminate its closest ally in the Middle East . . . (would mean) an end to its Mediterranean port, and would signal a blow to Russian prestige and its strategic influence worldwide,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based monitoring group UN Watch.

Original URL: http://www.thestar.com/printarticle/1124527

UN Watch