Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Syria resolution defeated at UN. Does that free up US to act on its own?

For the third time since the crisis began, Russia and China teamed up to defeat a UN Security Council resolution on Syria. The US may now pursue ‘action outside of the council.’

Russia’s veto Thursday of a Security Council resolution aimed at quelling the chaotic violence in Syria revealed a paralyzed and bitterly divided international community. But the failure of the resolution may also have the effect of pushing frustrated outside powers, including the United States, to find other ways to intervene in the Syrian crisis.

Russia was joined by China in vetoing a British-sponsored and US-backed resolution, prompting Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mark Lyall Grant, to condemn the two naysayers in unusually undiplomatic terms and accuse them of putting national interests over the international good.

Calling the veto “appalling,” Ambassador Grant said the vote revealed Russia and China “failing in their responsibilities as members of the Security Council,” adding that “they have chosen to put national interests ahead of the lives of Syrians.”

It was the third time in the course of the 16-month crisis that Russia and China teamed up to veto Security Council action on Syria. The action cemented a growing consensus among diplomats and regional analysts that dueling world powers will leave Syria to its own devices — and to those of other outside players.

Article continues after advertisement

A visibly infuriated Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, warned that the council’s inaction risks encouraging “a proxy war that could engulf the region.”

In defense of his country’s veto, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Western countries were trying with their resolution to bring down Assad under the guise of a UN peace effort. He said the proof was that in Russia’s view the British resolution was one-sided and targeted only Assad, not the rebels. 

In the absence of UN action the US will not sit idly by, Ambassador Rice said, but will “intensify our work with a diverse range of nations outside the Security Council” to address Syria’s violence bring about a political transition.

The Security Council voted as speculation swirled around the whereabouts of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the stability of his regime. A day after a bombing struck Mr. Assad’s tight inner circle of power, killing three top aides, diplomats and analysts offered varying assessments of how long the regime could last.

The US may be freed up by what Rice called the Security Council “failure,” but the need to do something different and shift away from UN-coordinated action also presents the Obama administration with a new set of problems. For one thing, the White House will now have to consider direct intervention more seriously — something President Obama had hoped to avoid in the run-up to the November election.

Despite Russia’s concerns that the West would use a resolution authorizing punitive measures against Assad as an excuse to intervene militarily, Mr. Obama has shown no inclination to follow the path taken in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi was brought down with NATO assistance.

Some analysts speculated after Wednesday’s bombing in Damascus that Assad might fall sooner than previously thought — taking the Syria conundrum off Obama’s plate, at least to the degree that an eventual military intervention would no longer be part of the debate.

But others say Assad is likely to hang on for a while, a prospect that raises the chances of an extended civil war and the “proxy war” Rice warned about. An increasingly desperate Assad also raises the specter of the regime using its large stockpile of chemical weapons on its own people, something Rice emphasized in the council and which the Obama administration is focused on in its internal discussions.

Rice said Syria’s continuing escalation in violence “is even more frightening because of the large stockpiles of chemical weapons.” She said Assad’s potential use “in desperation” of the chemical weapons on his own people “should be a concern to all of us.” Until recently US officials have expressed confidence the regime had the weapons under control and would not cross the line of use, but concerns were raised with recent reports that the regime was beginning to move the stockpiles around.

Article continues after advertisement

Pressure is likely to mount on the Obama White House to take more concrete action now that the Security Council option seems dead. Calls from some members of Congress for the US to at least arm the opposition are likely to grow, and pressure may mount for the US to intervene directly.

The US could now shift to “coercive diplomacy,” meaning the US could undertake a series of strategic airstrikes against military installations to convince Assad to accept a political transition, says Christopher Chiwis, a senior political analyst at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. Another possibility would be for the US to create and enforce safe havens, possibly with the aid of NATO or a “coalition of the willing,” Mr. Chiwis says.

In comments to reporters after the council vote, Rice repeated her statement that the US would now turn to “partnerships and action outside of the council.” One of those partners will likely be the Syrian National Council, the Syrian opposition umbrella group that earlier this week warned that a failure of the council to pass a resolution with punitive measures targeting Assad would force it to turn to other options to move Syria toward political transition. 

Rice did not elaborate on what action the US might take — other than to say the US will focus on working with the Friends of Syria group of countries.

The resolution’s failure also leaves in limbo the UN’s monitoring mission in Syria, whose mandate expires Friday. Western powers said they were likely to go along with a 30-day extension of the mission, which was sent in to monitor a never-reached cease-fire that was to be the starting point of Syria envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan.

Rice said an extension was unlikely to serve any more purpose than to allow for the safe and orderly withdrawal of the UN’s 300 monitors, who have been holed up in hotel rooms for most of their nearly three-month mission.