Bloomberg News

Russia Faces Onslaught at UN to Back Ouster of Assad in Syria

February 02, 2012

Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and the European Union plan to mount a rare diplomatic assault on Russia today at the United Nations, seeking to overcome an impasse on a Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, joined by her U.K. and French counterparts, will attend a 3 p.m. briefing on Syria presented to the UN’s decision-making body in New York by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi. The presence of the top diplomats adds weight to a Western drive to persuade Russia to withhold its veto of an Arab-European draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan for a power transfer in Syria.

Almost a year into the unrest in Syria, the EU and its allies have yet to overcome Russia’s resistance at the UN to efforts to hold Assad responsible for a crackdown that the UN estimates has killed more than 5,000 people. Today, the Arab speakers plan to present the case for a handover of power within two months, a plan that the Russians say is on par with imposing regime change.

“We have seen the consequences of neglect and inaction by this council, not because the majority of the council isn’t eager to act -- it has been -- but there have been a couple of very powerful members who have not been willing to see that action take place,” said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. “That may yet still be the case. We’ll see.”

As the UN Security Council meets, the violence in Syria reached the edges of Damascus, where government troops battled for control of rebel-held suburbs of the capital. The death toll in Syria rose yesterday to 100, most in Homs and Damascus suburbs, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists.

Backed in Corner

While the Europeans anticipate a Russia veto, their strategy is to weaken Russia and highlight its growing isolation in the 15-member body through repeated votes on Syria, according to Richard Gowan, a UN specialist at the New York University Center for International Cooperation.

“The Russians have talked themselves into a corner, so they have no choice but to block it,” Gowan said in an interview. “If they back down, it will be a diplomatic defeat.”

Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, blocked a UN resolution Oct. 4 seeking to pressure Assad to stop killing protesters in a crackdown that began 11 months ago. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin signaled last week that a second veto is on the cards, as the current draft “ignored our red lines” and added “unacceptable” new elements.

That rhetoric hasn’t deterred the Europeans from pushing for a vote.

“The veto-wielders are obviously important, but we want unanimous support for this resolution so we will be talking to all those that have concerns about the current situation,” British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters yesterday. “We hope to vote this week.”

Betting on Assad

Russia’s steadfast allegiance to its Soviet-era ally carries its own risks should the leader they back be toppled.

“They are basically taking a bet that Assad will remain in power, which is not the bet that everyone else is taking,” said Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Now they may be proven right, but they equally may be proven very wrong, in which case an enormous amount of their reputation in the Middle East goes out of the window.”

In New York, pressure on Russia is also coming from the political arm of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council, which is making its debut at the UN.

Assurances From Opposition

SNC President Burhan Ghalioun met yesterday with Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, to promise Moscow that its interests in Syria, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, will be preserved regardless of Assad’s fate.

“We reassured them that we are keen to continue the historic relationship with Russia,” he told reporters in New York in comments made in Arabic and translated into English. “I appeal to Russia, which has long historical ties with the Syrian people, to prevent the Assad regime from exploiting the Russia support in order to continue its oppression.”

Moscow can’t afford to lose its naval base in Tartous, on the Mediterranean Sea, given that it’s “said farewell to all its Mediterranean client states and bases in the past decades -- from Egypt, which evicted Russia in the 1970s, to Serbia, which became a landlocked state following the dissolution of the last Yugoslavia in 2003,” according to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

Time to Rethink

The Russians may still have time to re-think their position. Joshua Landis, director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said that while the regime is ultimately doomed, it may survive into 2013.

To mollify Russia, the draft underwent several rewrites to deal with accusations that Western powers were seeking a Libya- style overthrow of an autocrat.

A call for member states to prevent arms sales to Syria was dropped, as Russia sells weapons to the regime, and language that urged Assad to relinquish power was replaced with a call for him to delegate power to his deputy, a move that could leave Assad the nominal leader even if devoid of powers.

“We don’t anticipate him to accept or listen to the resolution,” said Ghalioun. “Nevertheless, to have that resolution is extremely important to emphasize his lack of legitimacy.”

-- With assistance from Henry Meyer in Moscow. Editors: Terry Atlas, Larry Liebert

To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net


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