On April 4th dozens of people, including children, died in a horrific way as a result of a chemical attack in a northern rebel-held area of Syria. Intelligence sources point to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as responsible for the attack, which was carried out by relatively sophisticated aircraft and followed up by an air attack on a hospital treating the wounded. The United States, the United Kingdom and France promptly called for an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to consider a draft resolution condemning the attack and demanding a thorough impartial investigation by the UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism. Russia balked at such a resolution, and, along with the Syrian regime itself, blamed terrorists for the attack.
More than a day of negotiations in an attempt to reach agreement on a consensus resolution proved to be futile. On Thursday evening, President Trump decided to launch a missile attack against the airbase within Syria said to have been the staging ground from where the chemical attack was launched. Trump had declared his red line just the day before and, unlike former President Obama, swiftly followed through with a narrowly targeted, proportionate attack to deter Assad from any further use of deadly chemical weapons.
On Friday morning, Bolivia, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, requested an open meeting of the Security Council to decry what its ambassador called an aggressive unilateral action in which the United States assumed the position of “investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.” Russian Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov used his remarks to lash out at what he claimed were the “illegitimate actions of the US.” He warned that “the aggression by the US has only facilitated the strengthening of terrorism.” Ambassador Safronov claimed that the draft resolution that had been proposed by the US, the UK and France was “greatly erroneous, based on predetermining Damascus being guilty.” He asked rhetorically, “Where is your principle of assuming innocence?” He accused the three Western permanent members of the Security Council of harboring the “paranoiac idea of overthrowing the legitimate government of Syria.” All Russia has asked for, he said, was a professional independent investigation with experts selected “on a geographical basis.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, presided over the Security Council meeting as its president this month. Waiting until the other members of the Council had spoken, she then addressed the Council in her national capacity and delivered a short but pointed rebuke to Russia’s apologies for the Syrian regime. She said that the time had come for action, noting that Russia was prepared to use its veto power again, as it had done 7 times previously, to protect the Assad regime and thwart any action by the Security Council. “Further delay would only have strengthened Assad. We were not going to allow that,” Ambassador Haley said. “The US took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary.”
Russia had vetoed a previous draft Security Council resolution last February, on which Bolivia also voted no, which would have punished the Syrian regime for earlier chemical attacks that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism had definitively attributed to the regime. It is obvious that the call by Russia and Bolivia for an independent investigation of this week’s chemical attack rings hollow. They refused to accept the past findings of such an independent investigation that ran counter to their defense of the Assad regime, and are only trying to buy more time for the regime to continue acting with impunity.
Russia now claims the illegitimacy of military action without Security Council authorization when it suits its purpose, while acting to neuter the Council from taking even any modest steps. Russia also took, without any hesitation or consultation with the Security Council, its own unilateral military actions with its invasion of Ukraine, occupation of Crimea and mass killings of civilians in aid of Assad in East Aleppo.
President Trump’s decision to launch the limited military strike against one Syrian airbase was a proportionate response to the Syrian regime’s flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and its own treaty obligations against the use of chemical weapons. If Assad resorts again to chemical weapons or commits other deadly mass killings of civilians, he should expect a more severe reprisal.
A Russian warship is reportedly headed towards the US destroyers from which the missiles were launched against Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin would do well to act cautiously. He is no longer dealing with weak-kneed Barack Obama, who drew red lines but did not follow through. President Trump has demonstrated to the world, and especially to Russia, Iran and North Korea – and to ISIS and all other Jihadist groups as well – that he means what he says.