Russia Faces Onslaught at UN to Back Ouster of Syria’s Assad

Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. and the European Union plan to mount a rare diplomatic assault on Russia today at the United Nations, seeking to overcome an impasse on a Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, joined by her U.K. and French counterparts, will attend a 3 p.m. briefing on Syria presented to the UN’s decision-making body in New York by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi. The presence of the top diplomats adds weight to a Western drive to persuade Russia to withhold its veto of an Arab-European draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for a power transfer in Syria.

Almost a year into the unrest in Syria, the EU and its allies have yet to overcome Russia’s resistance at the UN to efforts to hold Assad responsible for a crackdown that the UN estimates has killed more than 5,000 people. Today, the Arab speakers plan to present the case for a handover of power within two months, a plan that the Russians say is on par with imposing regime change.

“We have seen the consequences of neglect and inaction by this council, not because the majority of the council isn’t eager to act -- it has been -- but there have been a couple of very powerful members who have not been willing to see that action take place,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. “That may yet still be the case. We’ll see.”

No Force

The latest draft of a Western-backed Arab League resolution on Syria seeks to assure Russia that military intervention isn’t planned to force out Assad. “Nothing in this resolution compels states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force,” says the draft, obtained today.

As the UN Security Council meets, the violence in Syria reached the edges of Damascus, where government troops battled for control of rebel-held suburbs of the capital.

More than 100 people were killed yesterday, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. About 6,461 people have been killed in Syria since protests against Assad started in mid-March, including 4,685 civilians, the Syrian Observatory said on its website today.

While the Europeans anticipate a Russia veto, their strategy is to weaken Russia and highlight its growing isolation in the 15-member body through repeated votes on Syria, according to Richard Gowan, a UN specialist at the New York University Center for International Cooperation.

“The Russians have talked themselves into a corner, so they have no choice but to block it,” Gowan said in an interview. “If they back down, it will be a diplomatic defeat.”

Veto Again?

Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, blocked a UN resolution Oct. 4 seeking to pressure Assad to stop killing protesters in a crackdown that began 11 months ago.

Russia may convince another Security Council member to veto the plan or work to have the proposal withdrawn before a vote, according to a senior foreign ministry official, who declined to be identified under ministry policy.

That attitude hasn’t deterred the Europeans from pushing for a vote.

“This resolution endorses the plan of the Arab League,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said today in an interview in New York with Sky TV. “This is not the Western nations trying to say what should happen in Syria, this is the plan from the Arab world.”

‘Increasing Pressure’

Russia and China “will come under ever increasing pressure from world opinion and Arab opinion not to simply side with a dictatorial and repressive regime,” he said.

Russia’s steadfast allegiance to its Soviet-era ally carries its own risks should the leader they back be toppled.

“They are basically taking a bet that Assad will remain in power, which is not the bet that everyone else is taking,” said Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Now they may be proven right, but they equally may be proven very wrong, in which case an enormous amount of their reputation in the Middle East goes out of the window.”

In New York, pressure on Russia is also coming from the political arm of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council, which is making its debut at the UN.

Russia’s Interests

SNC President Burhan Ghalioun met yesterday with Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, to promise Moscow that its interests in Syria, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, will be preserved regardless of Assad’s fate.

“We reassured them that we are keen to continue the historic relationship with Russia,” he told reporters in New York in comments made in Arabic and translated into English. “I appeal to Russia, which has long historical ties with the Syrian people, to prevent the Assad regime from exploiting the Russia support in order to continue its oppression.”

Moscow can’t afford to lose its naval base in Tartous, on the Mediterranean Sea, given that it’s “said farewell to all its Mediterranean client states and bases in the past decades -- from Egypt, which evicted Russia in the 1970s, to Serbia, which became a landlocked state following the dissolution of the last Yugoslavia in 2003,” according to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

Time to Re-Think

The Russians may still have time to re-think their position. Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said that while the regime is ultimately doomed, it may survive into 2013.

To mollify Russia, the draft underwent several rewrites to deal with accusations that Western powers were seeking a Libya-style overthrow of an autocrat.

A call for member states to prevent arms sales to Syria was dropped, as Russia sells weapons to the regime, and language that urged Assad to relinquish power was replaced with a call for him to delegate power to his deputy, a move that could leave Assad the nominal leader even if devoid of powers.

“We don’t anticipate him to accept or listen to the resolution,” said Ghalioun. “Nevertheless, to have that resolution is extremely important to emphasize his lack of legitimacy.”

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