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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March-April 2012, Pages 26-27

United Nations Report

No Uniting for Peace After Russia and China Veto Security Council Resolution on Syria

By Ian Williams

In an unaccustomed display of urgency after Russia and China vetoed the Arab League's Security Council resolution on Syria, the General Assembly took the opportunity provided by Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay's report on the situation in Syria to vote on the issue. On Feb. 16 it overwhelmingly passed a resolution that no one could veto.

If the United Nations has one indispensable attribute it is the way the actors on its stages ham up their hypocrisy—especially since there is so much of it to put in the limelight. So U.S. Permanent Representative Susan Rice deplored the Russian and Chinese Feb. 4 vetoes—and they were indeed deplorable. Almost as deplorable, in fact, as her administration's previous vetoes of Security Council resolutions expressing its own declared policy and international law on Israeli settlements. Perhaps people dancing on ethical thin ice should not stamp their feet quite so hard.

On cue, Riyad Mansour of the Palestine Mission sent a missive to the Council and the secretary-general detailing the latest Israeli crimes and helpfully enumerating the previous 416 reports the Mission has submitted on the subject since the year 2000.

Even more deliciously ironic, the pro-Israel neocon wing in the U.S. has now joined forces with al-Qaeda to call for support for the Syrian insurgents. Needless to say, neither group has shown overmuch respect for U.N. action in the past.

Of course, the case for action of any kind against the Assad regime is not helped when Arab countries pursuing similar policies against unarmed protestors are also in the vanguard of demanding action. Ambassador Rice and America's friends in the Gulf might care to explain why Bahrain can repress its own people using foreign troops and police, with no fear of U.S. or U.N. action, but Assad can't use his own army to counter what is now an armed insurgency. Nor does it help that one Arab League member, Morocco, has been a recidivist defier of U.N. resolutions going back for 40 years of its occupation of the Western Sahara.

Once again, Realpolitik rears its ugly head. As their own behavior eloquently testifies, the Gulf countries have only a homeopathic dose of sympathy for democracy protesters. But they do want to score a hit on Iran by helping defang virtually the only other regime outside Venezuela that is an active ally to Tehran. Presumably that also plays into the neocons' support for action, as Iran has become the big Likudnik bugaboo since expedient amnesia has descended on the happy days of covert Iran-Israel weapons trading during Iran-Contra.

It always comes back to Israel!

In some ways, rational Israeli realpolitik should be happy with the Assad regime, which has maintained a truce along its border since 1973—but rationality about Iran long ago flew off into the desert. Syria's army with its Russian weaponry has not been a serious threat to Israel for decades, although it does cramp the possibility of the otherwise likely Israeli bursts of military bloodlust in that direction. Indeed the tightly (secret-) policed state that Assad and his father have run has been very effective in heading off any free-lance guerrilla incursions, and has been useful to Israel on occasion in whacking the Palestinians in Lebanon.

While all that is useful background to consider when planning what form international action can feasibly take, it does not alter the basic point: what the Assad regime is doing in Syria violates humanitarian law. Moreover, every U.N. member state accepted the basic premise of "Responsibility to Protect" at the 2005 United Nations summit, when they unanimously reinterpreted the U.N. Charter's provisions on threats to international peace and security to include the failure of governments to protect their own people.

While China prefers tactical abstentions to actual vetoes, Beijing went along on Syria at the Security Council because Moscow had, but it was clearly worried about what could be a very inauspicious diplomatic move.

Even the Russians did not deny the resolution's basic premise, but rather tried to procrastinate and appeal for time for more diplomacy. Sadly they were ill-served by the Assad regime, which ratcheted up its bloody assault to coincide with Moscow's charm offensive on its behalf.

The other argument used to defend the veto is that the Syrian insurgents were also using violence. This recalls the sign that allegedly graced the lion cage in the Paris Zoo: "This animal is dangerous—when attacked it fights back." The regime had been shooting unarmed protestors for a long time before any of them took up arms.

Nor should Russia's suggestions that its veto was influenced by Western overkill in Libya get too much credence. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was formerly Moscow's man on the Security Council during the years of sanctions and over-reach toward Iraq. The Russians knew exactly what they were signing up for when they did not veto the Libya resolution, and shed few tears for the colonel. In playing to the sovereignty gallery at the U.N., however, they already had forfeited influence and markets in the new Libya—and this time they did not even get the support of those members usually deeply concerned about potential Western encroachment on sovereignty, such as India and Pakistan.

It is true that the course of events in Libya did not run so smoothly as in Tunisia—but that is arguably a consequence of delayed and low-key intervention, along with the regime drawing comfort from what it saw as tacit Russian support.

Unless Moscow has secret information about the prospects of Assad's survival, it has lost the chance of continuing arms sales to the successor regime. And sadly, it might have done damage to the prospects for any stable Syrian regime by sending false reassurance.

It always comes back to Israel!

So now that Washington wants to get around the Russian veto, it falls immediately into a trap of its own making. Faced with U.S. vetoes in support of Israel, the Palestinians revived the Uniting for Peace procedure that the West had used to circumvent the Soviet veto during the Korean War.

In the face of this, the U.S. and its allies had decided that the procedure was outdated. Every media report and repeated speeches reiterate that General Assembly resolutions are not binding in international law—thus leaving in some legal limbo decisions like the General Assembly resolution on the partition of Palestine and the conduct of the Korean War. By "non-binding," what they actually mean is that only the Security Council has legal authority to "enforce" decisions.

The General Assembly Resolution

General Assembly president Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar could have used the Uniting for Peace procedure to respond to the impasse in the Security Council. But for once the U.S. and the West wanted a resolution, without in any way legitimizing what the Palestinians had been doing previously. We can therefore assume that is why Al-Nasser forbore that route. Instead, taking some liberties with procedure, he took to a vote the Human Rights Commissioner's Report on Syria, instead of allowing it to languish in the usual committees.

It is significant that when the Syrian delegate tried to appeal this on procedural grounds, he could only get support from Iran and North Korea. He thus wisely did not push for a vote on the appeal, since an actual vote would have underscored the regime's isolation. Unlike Qaddafi, Assad does not even have a coterie of paid-for heads of state to stand up for him, so the General Assembly voted 137 to 12 to support the Arab League position on Syria, with Assad's friends being low in both number and quality.

Despite the confused motives surrounding the passing of the resolution, its emphasis on human rights violations in a country needing international action in response is a useful precedent, reinforcing the gradual development of a global legal protocol to control rogue regimes. One of the reasons some otherwise worried governments supported it was because it was sponsored by the Arab League, and members traditionally prefer to defer to regional groupings like that. But one has to ponder just how desperate for friends the Damascus regime is when Sudan, whose president is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for just such causes, votes for international action. Uzbekistan and Yemen tactfully absented themselves from the vote.

While calling on the secretary-general to appoint a special envoy and supporting the Arab League plan for a peaceful solution, the General Assembly resolution is short on specifics. Conspiracy theorists notwithstanding, there is a sane lack of Western appetite to send troops in—and, of course, if Israel wanted to rally Arab support for Assad, it could intervene itself.

The danger of the Russian and Chinese veto is that it takes the Security Council out of the equation and thus removes direction and immediacy from any response. That is, after all, the Council's function. The General Assembly resolution that was passed could just prolong the agony, with the attendant dangers of a replay of Lebanon, as Kurds, Palestinians, Christians, Druze, Alawites and Sunnis run for the cover of their kind.

On the other hand, the resolution lends some degree of legitimacy to other states who can claim it, along with other excuses, to act in varying degrees of unilateralism—without the restraint of the Security Council. The signs are that Assad's days are numbered, but if they are to be numbered in small figures, then the international community has to guarantee protection to those groups—not least to the Alawites, who, with some legitimacy, probably fear a pogrom from the opposition if their presidential patron is removed from the scene.

At the moment it does look like everyone is just muddling along and hoping for the best, but one seriously hopes that various military powers are making substantive contingency plans and preparations for the various eventualities. The cover of the General Assembly resolution might be enough for arms supplies to the insurgents, for example, or for Turkish action to contain refugee flow. To the welter of motivations and allegiances in the struggle inside Syria, outsider interests will only add confusion. Some are anti-Iranian, some pro-Israeli, some anti-Assad. Sadly, few will be genuinely pro-democracy or pro-Syrian.

The issue must come back to the Security Council, and Russia and China should grow up and accept that with the privilege of the veto comes responsibilities.

They could set an example to Washington yet!

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations who blogs at <>.