Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced in separate statements to the press late Thursday afternoon that an agreement had been reached between them on the elements of a Security Council resolution to implement the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to international control for removal and destruction. The resolution being contemplated would follow along the lines of the framework agreement the two men worked out in Geneva, but without any explicit automatic consequences under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter for non-compliance by the Syrian regime. In other words a second resolution may be required before any enforcement action can actually be taken.
Two hours prior to the announcement that the U.S. and Russia were on the same page, Lavrov answered a question as to whether the parties were close to an agreement: “Russia is very close. The United States is not.”
It looks like Kerry ended up moving in Russia’s direction.
“We have finalized the draft which will be submitted at the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague any minute now," Lavrov said Thursday evening. "We have also agreed on a US-Russian draft resolution which will be submitted to the Security Council later tonight.”
The Security Council went into a closed consultation on the draft of the resolution later on in the evening and may vote on the final text as early as Friday, depending on when the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (“OPCW”) formally acts, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said. The OPCW’s text would become an annex to the Security Council resolution and be rendered legally binding once the resolution is passed as expected.
A draft of the resolution made available late Thursday night states the obvious - that “the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic constitutes a threat to international peace and security.” It does not assign specific blame for the massive August 21st chemical weapons attack, even though the Obama administration had made a point of saying there was no doubt that the Syrian regime was responsible. It demands that non-state actors (i.e., the opposition), rather than just the Syrian government, “not develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer, or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery.” This was an obvious concession to Russia, which has been arguing that the rebels have been responsible for chemical weapons attacks. In another concession to the Russians, the draft resolution calls for accountability of the perpetrators but makes no specific reference to referral of the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court.
Most importantly, while there is an oblique reference to the imposition of “measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter” if there is “non-compliance with this resolution, including unauthorized transfer of chemical weapons, or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in the Syrian Arab Republic,” there is no automatic set of clearly defined consequences, triggered without requiring further Security Council authorization, such as sanctions, let alone the use of collective military force. Indeed, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin interpreted this provision as requiring additional action by the Council to actually activate Chapter VII enforcement mechanisms.
Thus, under this interpretation – not expressly contradicted to date by the U.S. or its allies on the Council - all this resolution would be doing is to kick the can down the road and buy Syrian President Bashar al-Assad more time. President Obama and John Kerry can boast that “peace is at hand,” at least until they are faced with having to deal with likely non-compliance.
In short, Russia won this round.
The UN was also the venue on Thursday for a meeting of foreign ministers of the permanent members of the Security Council, Germany and Iran. The post-meeting consensus, at least for public consumption, was that the tone and atmosphere of the meeting were positive. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif was described by Kerry as earnestly trying to find a way to answer questions of the international community regarding Iran’s nuclear program. He said that Zarif’s presentation was different in tone and vision than previous Iranian negotiating postures.
For his part, Zarif was also positive. He described this initial meeting as “constructive” and “substantive.” While continuing to insist that Iran retained the right to conduct its nuclear program, including enrichment of uranium, for peaceful purposes, Zarif acknowledged the need to find ways to ensure that there is no international uncertainty as to whether Iran’s nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes. However, he said that the “end game” must be the removal of all unilateral and multilateral sanctions.
The outcome of this meeting was that there will be another meeting to launch negotiations with Iran in Geneva on October 15th and 16th. This would be just the beginning of what could be a long negotiating process during which Iran buys more time to achieve its ambition of completing the development of a nuclear weapons capacity, with all of the leverage that will bring. Iran is very adept at using negotiations as a delaying tactic.
In short, Iran won this round.
Quite a day’s worth of “diplomacy” at the United Nations for Secretary of State John Kerry.
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