Put Russia to the test

It now appears that a final vote on American airstrikes in Syria will not take place in Congress until after the UN weapons inspectors have issued their report.

Although the US Senate is still expected to vote this week, a vote in the House of Representatives will come later, according to several reports citing a memo written by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

In the memo, issued on Friday, Cantor (a Republican) said: "Members should expect a robust debate and vote on an authorisation of use of military force pertaining to Syria in the next two weeks."

Meanwhile, there are signs that the inspectors' report will be issued earlier than forecast. A few days ago diplomatic sources said it would not be ready for another two to three weeks but yesterday French president François Hollande said it is "likely" to arrive by the end of this coming week.

If these predictions are correct the result will be a more logical timetable – one that allows the House of Representatives to make its decision in the light of the inspectors' findings. (Whether the inspectors will add much to what we already know is unclear but it would be preferable to wait and see.)

The result could also be a further delay as far as actual military action is concerned. President Hollande indicated yesterday that France might then wish to refer the matter to the UN Security Council.

That, again, is a logical course to take. Even if Russia blocked a new Security Council resolution it would at least demonstrate that UN avenues had been exhausted and strengthen the American case for action outside the UN framework.

The US, of course, has already lost patience with the Security Council, and its ambassador, Samantha Power, explained why in a speech on Friday:

"People are asking, shouldn’t the United States work through the Security Council on an issue that so clearly implicates international peace and security? The answer is, of course, yes ... we would if we could, but we can’t.

"Every day for the two-and-a-half years of the Syrian conflict, we have shown how seriously we take the UN Security Council and our obligations to enforce international peace and security. Since 2011, Russia and China have vetoed three separate Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict.

"This year alone, Russia has blocked at least three statements expressing humanitarian concern and calling for humanitarian access to besieged cities in Syria. And in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use.

"We believe that more than 1,400 people were killed in Damascus on August 21, and the Security Council could not even agree to put out a press statement expressing its disapproval."

A further hazard in taking the Security Council route is that on this occasion Russia might not use its veto but instead prevaricate and procrastinate, watering down any proposed action – even of a non-military kind. In her speech, Power asked:

"What would words in the form of belated diplomatic condemnation achieve? What could the International Criminal Court really do, even if Russia or China were to allow a referral? Would a drawn-out legal process really affect the immediate calculus of Assad and those who ordered chemical weapons attacks?

"We could try again to pursue economic sanctions, but even if Russia budged, would more asset freezes, travel bans, and banking restrictions convince Assad not to use chemical weapons again, when he has a pipeline to the resources of Hezbollah and Iran? Does anybody really believe that deploying the same approaches we have tried for the last year will suddenly be effective?"

These are valid points and it's entirely possible that Russia, despite all the evidence produced by other countries, and anything else that the inspectors may have found, will continue to insist that the Syrian regime was not responsible for the attacks on August 21.

On the other hand, there's little doubt that Russia and the Assad regime would prefer not to see American airstrikes – so the question is what price they would be willing to pay in order to avoid them. At present we don't know, but it might be worth finding out.

The bare minimum would be to prevent any further attacks in Syria using banned weapons (and I have suggested how that might be achieved in an earlier blog post). Putting the regime's chemical stockpile under UN control would not only prevent its use by the regime – thus avoiding further international confrontations on that issue – but would also remove the risk of it falling into rebel hands.

If that idea could be sold to Russia without endless quibbling, Assad would have to fall in line too or risk losing his key ally, and we might see some progress. Rejection, however, would close the diplomatic door and Assad would then face the military consequences.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 08 September 2013