Behind the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a U.N. resolution on Syria were not only serious differences over President Bashar Assad’s crackdown against civilians but concerns that even threatening sanctions might lead to a repetition of the NATO bombing campaign in Libya.
The result is that nearly seven months after the uprising against Assad began, the U.N.’s most powerful body remains deeply divided and unable to adopt a legally binding resolution to address the violence in Syria that by U.N. estimates has claimed more than 2,700 lives.
It’s a far cry from the heady atmosphere on March 17 when the same council members made history by authorizing, for the first time, the use of military force to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government — in that case attacks by Moammar Gadhafi’s troops in Libya.
At the time, the resolution was seen as ushering in a potential new era of protection for civilians caught in internal conflicts.
But the prospect of Security Council action to protect Syrians or any other civilians engulfed in violence now appears highly unlikely because of opposition from Russia. Moscow says its chief concern is the way the Libyan resolution has been interpreted by NATO members Britain, France and the United States.
The March resolution banned all flights in Libyan airspace and authorized U.N. members to take “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” while excluding any “foreign occupation force” in Libyan territory.
It was approved by a 10-0 vote. Russia and China abstained, as did India, Germany and Brazil.
After the resolution passed, NATO launched a bombing campaign which it contends is solely aimed at protecting civilians. But Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil argue that the Libya resolution did not justify months of air strikes aimed at toppling Gadhafi’s regime, and they have expressed concern that a new resolution might be used as a pretext for armed intervention against Syria.
The four European nations that sponsored the Syria resolution — Britain, France, Germany and Portugal — watered down its language on sanctions three times to try to win Russia and China’s support. They also specified that any sanctions could not be enforced by military action.
But when the text was sent to Moscow for review, word came back that it was unacceptable, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because consultations were private.
No one would speculate on what happened in the Kremlin that led to the rejection of the resolution. But the veto provoked strong rebukes from the U.S. and Western European countries and human rights groups.
“It is not a matter of wording. It is a political choice,” France’s U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said after the Tuesday vote. “It is an expression of disregard for the legitimate aspirations courageously expressed in Syria… It’s a rejection of the extraordinary movement in support of freedom and democracy that is the Arab Spring.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said after listening to Araud that “the one thing I agree with … is this is really a conflict between different political philosophies and different political strategies.”
“The situation in Syria cannot be considered in the council apart from the Libyan experience,” he stressed. “The international community is alarmed” that the NATO interpretation of the Libya resolution “is a model for future actions of NATO in implementing responsibility to protect … (and) could happen in Syria.”
Churkin criticized the Europeans for refusing to include language from a rival Russian draft resolution that would have specifically banned any military intervention in Syria. He said the proposed resolution was too critical of Assad’s government, that it ignored government victims of the violence and that an “ultimatum of sanctions” was an “unacceptable threat.”
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice called claims that the resolution would be a pretext for military intervention “a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.” Syrian allies Russia and China reportedly remain major arms suppliers to the Assad regime.
Churkin strongly objected to the allegation, “especially coming from a country (The United States) which is pumping hundreds of billions of dollars of military hardware into the area.”
“Our vote has nothing to do with that,” he told reporters, noting that Russia has supported past sanctions that have led to “major losses” in arms sales.
The Europeans and U.S. said they will bring the Syrian issue back to the council when possible.
Meanwhile, they pledged to seek other international action to pressure the Syrian regime, and to stand with the Syrian people.
Russia and China also warned that Assad should not see the resolution’s defeat as a green light to continue using tanks and soldiers against civilians.
China’s U.N. Ambassador Li Baodong urged Syria to end the violence, “implement reforms and launch a political process as soon as possible.”
“The worst conclusion they can draw from this,” Churkin said, “is that (Syria’s leaders) can slacken their efforts towards reform … to establishing dialogue with the opposition … (and) cleaning up their act in terms of excessive use of force.”