Syria Faces UN Sanctions Push as Ally Russia Resists

Syria would face United Nations sanctions under a Security Council resolution drafted by Western powers seeking to overcome Russian resistance to measures that would hasten the fall of President Bashar al-Assad.

The move came after Kofi Annan, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, yesterday asked the UN’s decision-making body via video link from Geneva to “send a message to all that there will be consequences for noncompliance” with his peace efforts.

“Russians remain very skeptical to anything that even slightly creates the chance of military action,” Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center on International Cooperation, said in an interview. “Still, I would not rule out a change of course as bad news keeps piling up on the ground.”

The deterioration of the 17-month conflict, daily killings and rising number of reported defections have emboldened the U.S, France and the U.K. to challenge Russia to break with a Soviet-era ally it’s protected from punishment. Annan’s transition plan envisions Assad’s exit within a year’s time.

The latest attempt to hold Assad accountable “includes a clear threat of sanctions if the regime fails in its first step of stopping the use of heavy weapons with a fixed timeline,” Mark Lyall Grant, the U.K.’s UN envoy in New York, said yesterday. “We’ve heard a lot of commitments in the past. They have not been followed through.”

After Annan’s plea, a bloc of Western countries submitted a draft giving Assad 10 days to implement a cease-fire and pull out troops from urban centers. Failure to comply would open his regime immediately to a series of measures -- such as an arms embargo, asset freezes and travel bans -- though not outside military intervention.

Russian Spotlight

That puts the spotlight on Russia, which yesterday met with the opposition, to go further than it’s been willing to go until now to pressure Assad. It opposes the Western draft because of the invocation of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, a tool Russia accused the West of abusing last year to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

“Chapter 7 is the last resort,” Alexander Pankin, Russia’s deputy UN envoy, told reporters yesterday. “Chapter 7 is not very efficient on many occasions. If there is no political will on behalf of all participants to this large process then no action, especially one-side actions aimed at the Syrian government, would be helpful.”

Measures with bite require the approval of Russia, whose ties with Syria date back to the Cold War, because it is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power.

Opposition View

“We want a real break between Russia and the current regime,” Burhan Ghalioun, a senior member of the Syrian National Congress and its former leader, said during a news conference in Moscow yesterday after talks between an opposition delegation and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “You are still arming a regime that is killing its own people.”

Russia, which has refused to halt existing weapons sales to Syria, dispatched 11 military ships to the Mediterranean, some bound for its naval resupply base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

The longest and bloodiest of the Arab revolts has taken its toll on Assad. A member of his inner circle, Syrian Brigadier-General Manaf Tlas, fled the country last week and Al Jazeera reported yesterday that Assad’s ambassador to Iraq also defected.

The international community has been stuck on how to put an end to the Syrian conflict, which the opposition says has left more than 17,000 Syrians dead. At least 74 Syrians were killed yesterday by security forces, Al Jazeera said citing activists.

Assad Talks

Annan discussed with Assad in Damascus on July 8 how a political transition would unfold. That process should “be completed within six months to a year,” he told the council, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “Assad indicated that this could be possible if conditions were correct.”

Annan specified that a “key issue at this stage is the appointment of an effective empowered interlocutor who is clearly authorized to negotiate.” Assad proposed Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister for national reconciliation affairs, according to a report in the Lebanese daily newspaper al-Akhbar.

Efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict have put the U.S. and its European allies at odds with Russia. The Western nations signaled they won’t support an extension of a UN observer mission in Syria unless real pressure is put on Assad. Their draft proposes a 45-day extension. Russia proposed July 10 an alternative resolution that would extend the monitors’ stay for 90 days.

No Teeth

“We have waited 18 months,” Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN, told reporters. “The Russian proposal does not have teeth, it’s very clear.”

The mission of 300 military observers, charged with overseeing a cease-fire Assad never respected, “regrettably is not at present able to do the job,” said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice. “It’s not plausible to assume” the monitoring mission “will be any more able to do fulfill its mandate in the future than it is now.”

With two rival resolutions on the table, concessions may need to be made by both sides ahead of a vote next week. The three-month mandate for the UN’s Syrian mission expires July 20.

“Russia understands that Assad’s days are numbered because of the civil war and his steady loss of support,” Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a telephone interview. “Its main concern is to keep what it can of its influence and preserve face.”

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