Russia’s Three Options at the UN

French diplomats revealed this morning that an “unexpected meeting” will take place later today at the UN and the topic of discussion will be Syria. It’s unclear if a new draft will be circulated, however. A joint draft, written by Qatar, Morocco, and Western powers, supposedly backs the Arab League’s bold new plan that forces Assad from power. Such terms would be too strong for Russia–and a veto is likely if in fact that version of the draft is put to vote late next week.

Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov essentially promised a veto today when speaking to reporters. “Any decision about a future political settlement in Syria must be made during the political process without … preliminary conditions, and the demand for Assad’s resignation is a preliminary condition,” he’s quoted as saying. Russia thus far has refused to blame a regime responsible for the deaths of thousands, even as two days of violence in Homs spikes, resulting in the death of at least 50 people including women and children.

We now know what the next week or so will look like, and the sequence matters since it will dictate what happens at the UN and how Russia will vote. The Security Council, according to French diplomats, will meet later today to discuss Syria. This will be a ‘warm-up’ of sorts, since Nabil El-Arabi, Secretary General of the Arab League, will arrive in New York this weekend. Once there he will try to convince the Council that Arab outrage has reached a tipping point. Beyond this, he will try and get support for the Arab League’s gutsy transition plan.

The Russians have effectively promised a veto–but the Arab League will still go to Moscow next week regardless of the threat (see my Wednesday post). Hanging over the Arab-Russian meeting will probably be a new UN draft resolution on Syria which could be hammered out as soon as this weekend. Although a day has not yet been set for a vote–since the text is unfinished–diplomats have signaled that a vote may come later next week, after the League meets with Russian officials.

To clarify, we’re looking at this timeline: Security Council meets today; Arab League arrives in New York tomorrow; the Arab League goes to Moscow early next week; and a vote is held just days after. Given this sequence, there’s three ways a new Syrian resolution could go down.

First, the League’s visit could result in a delay of the vote and a changing of the terms. The transition plan may be rejected but in its place we may see a different resolution that condemns the regime (though it will not call for Assad to step aside, so that Russia still enjoys some wiggle room). This is still a signal worth sending to Damascus. And it’s an upgrade considering the international community’s stunning inaction thus far. Russia could vote for a resolution if it explicitly forbid the use of force.

Second, Russia could veto the resolution after being cornered at the Council by Washington, Europe, and the Arab League. If the Security Council moves forward with a resolution which the Russians have sworn to oppose, and a vote is held next week in spite of this promise, then it will be clear that the West and the Arab League are trying to shame Russia into action. A Russian veto would, in essence, be a vote in favor of Assad’s crackdown. This kind of “hard-nose” diplomacy would signal a major shift in approach. It would also have big repercussions since it could encourage Russia to dig in deeper and support the regime even more.

Thirdly, and least likely of all, Russia could surprise the world and abstain along with China. This would be the best result, but there’s almost no chance the League can go to Moscow and change minds so decisively.

Of these three possibilities I think the first (a weaker resolution) is what we’ll see. What do you think?


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