The United Nations Security Council held another inconclusive Middle East debate on March 12th, focusing largely on the continuing massacres in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated, along with her counterparts from Russia, France, the United Kingdom and other members of the Security Council.
Clinton called on Russia and China to support a Security Council resolution that placed the blame for the violence squarely on the shoulders of the Assad regime. She insisted that, as between the government and the opposition, Syrian President Assad’s forces must stop the firing first. Elaborating on a central theme of her Security Council speech, she told reporters afterwards:
The monopoly on deadly violence belongs to the Syrian regime, and there needs to be an end to the violence and the bloodshed in order to move into a political process. Now, of course, once the Syrian Government has acted, then we would expect others as well to cease the violence. But there cannot be an expectation for defenseless citizens in the face of artillery assaults to end their capacity to defend themselves before there’s a commitment by the Assad regime to do so… There must be a cessation of violence by the Syrian regime first and foremost. Then we can move toward asking others, who will no longer need to defend themselves because we will be in a political process, to end their own counter-violence.
French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Alain Juppé, agreed, telling reporters that one of his “red lines” in negotiating a new resolution was to make sure that the initiative for a cease fire must first come from the Assad regime. His other “red line” was that the resolution must include a clear reference to a political process that takes account of “the aspirations of the Syrian people to freedom and to democracy.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov agreed that there must be “an immediate end of violence” in Syria. However, he added that armed elements of the opposition in Syria – including elements said to be affiliated with al Qaeda – were also responsible for the violence and should cease their armed attacks in conjunction with the Assad regime. He supported a resolution by the Security Council, but one that did not impose “any prejudged solutions.”
Both Russia and China referred back to the Security Council resolution authorizing international military action in Libya to protect civilians, which they felt was exceeded by NATO in terms of the scope of the NATO bombings and the arming of some rebels in Libya. They had both abstained on the Libyan resolution, and vowed not to permit a repeat situation in Syria.
French Minister Juppé minced no words in criticizing Russia and China for their comparisons with the Libyan situation:
It is rather indecent to try to condemn this intervention and at the same time to block, to veto a resolution in Syria just at the moment when the regime is killing hundreds and hundreds of victims.
The back-and-forth at the UN took place against the backdrop of more killings in the city of Homs as well as in other parts of Syria. The United Nations estimates that 7,500 people have died so far in Syria, since the crackdown on protests began about a year ago. Valerie Amos, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator for Syria, expressed horror at the devastation she witnessed first-hand. “As fighting, shelling, and other violence intensifies in Idlib, Homs and other places in Syria, the risk of a grave humanitarian crisis grows,” she said. “I call on all Member States to continue to ensure that the humanitarian response and negotiations for humanitarian access are clearly separated from political discussions.”
An attempt by the UN-Arab League Special Envoy, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to persuade Assad to initiate an immediate ceasefire failed. Nevertheless, Annan – who once called Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein “a man he could do business with” – remains optimistic.
Negotiations are underway behind the scenes for some sort of watered down Security Council resolution, which could end up finessing the timing of cessation of violence by each side, provide general support for the Arab League’s plan for transition towards a more inclusive government chosen by the Syrian people without specifically asking for Assad to step aside, and call for unrestricted access for international humanitarian workers to reach those in need of assistance. For any such resolution to pass, there will have to be a disavowal of any outside military intervention and no reference to the imposition of economic sanctions under UN auspices.