Nearly 6000 Syrians have died during the 10-month revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including hundreds of children. In one of the worst single day outbursts of violence, which occurred on February 3rd, the death toll from shelling by Syrian security forces in the city of Homs alone exceeded 200.
In the midst of the escalating violence, the United Nations Security Council met in a special Saturday session on February 4th to address the crisis in Syria. It failed to take any action after Russia and China vetoed a resolution expressing moral support for the beleaguered Syrian people and endorsing a plan put forward by the Arab League to help them move peacefully beyond Assad towards democracy. The Security Council let the Syrian people down as Assad’s killing machine continues to massacre innocent civilians.
Last week started out with much fanfare. The Arab League’s secretary general and the prime minister of Qatar addressed the Security Council in person on January 31st to present the Arab League’s plan and ask for the Security Council’s endorsement.
“The government killing machine continues effectively unabated,” said Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani. “The hope of the Syrian people is in your hands,” he added.
“Do not let the Syrian people down in its plight,” said the Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several of her counterparts, including the foreign ministers of France and the United Kingdom, followed the presentation of the Arab League plan to the Security Council with their own supportive speeches.
In her stern address to the Council, Clinton harshly condemned the Syrian regime’s brutality against its citizens and urged full backing for the Arab League’s plan. “It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria,” Clinton told the Council. “The alternative – spurning the Arab League, abandoning the Syrian people, emboldening the dictator – would compound this tragedy, and would mark a failure of our shared responsibility, and shake the credibility of the United Nations Security Council.”
Russia and China had vetoed a prior resolution last October concerning the violence in Syria. Russia in particular has been running interference for its ally Assad, whose regime is a major customer for Russian weapons and has provided Russia with access to one of its ports.
Mindful of the fate of the prior resolution, which had been spearheaded by the West, Clinton reminded the Council that this time it was the Arab League taking the lead and asking the Council for its support:
So why is the Arab League here before this Security Council? Because they are seeking the support of the international community for a negotiated, peaceful political solution to this crisis and a responsible, democratic transition in Syria. And we all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé accused the Syrian regime of “crimes against humanity.” He added that the Arab League was offering the only viable plan to counter the violence and help facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy. “We have to take it,” Ambassador Juppé said.
However, Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin made it clear in his own remarks on January 31st that Russia would oppose any Security Council resolution that attempted “to prescribe outcomes” for the Syrian regime.
In the days that followed these speeches, Morocco’s original draft resolution went through successive mark-ups that were circulated in an effort to reach a consensus among all the members of the Security Council. While China is reported to have proposed little during the informal discussions, Russia insisted upon and obtained a number of key concessions. Bringing Russia on board was the key to passage of the resolution. China, in this case, was viewed as joined at the hip with Russia and likely to follow whatever Russia ultimately decided to do.
The Arab League plan proposed specific steps to successfully transition to democracy. Under the plan, Syrian President Assad would first cede power to his vice president, followed by the formation of a national unity government with the opposition and ultimately a new constitution and new elections. The original text of the Security Council resolution laid out these same steps. However, by the end of the week, these steps were removed from the final draft of the resolution as a concession to Russia.
The original proposed resolution expressed the Security Council’s “grave concern at the continued transfer of weapons into Syria which fuels the violence” and called on the member states “to take necessary steps to prevent such flow of arms.”
The final draft removed any reference to weapons as a further concession to Russia.
The final draft also made clear that nothing in the resolution authorizes the use of any military force to accomplish its purpose.
Russia even managed to promote itself in the resolution as a partner with the Arab League in the search for a peaceful solution. The final resolution draft noted specifically “the offer of the Russian Federation to host a meeting in Moscow, in consultation with the League of Arab States.”
Everything appeared to be on track by the end of last week to finally bring Russia on board, until Russia decided at the last moment to introduce some amendments with a few revisions to the resolution’s wording. That is where the United States, France, the United Kingdom and others on the Council drew a line in the sand. They decided that Russia had gone too far in trying to weaken the resolution’s text. Precious time was being wasted while civilians were dying in Syria.
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