Russia faces a big decision in the UN Security Council: whether to veto the draft resolution on Syria, or use the threat of a veto to extract further concessions in the text and then go along, maybe by abstaining.
There are ample reasons for Moscow to veto. In its current form the resolution foresees “delegation by the President of Syria of his full authority to his Deputy to fully cooperate with the national unity government in order to empower it to perform its duties in the transitional period.” If seriously implemented, this would mean the end of Bashar al Assad, though not necessarily of his sidekicks. Farouk al-Sharaa, the vice president, is a solid Assad regime type. But once a transition is set in motion, it will be difficult for Moscow to prevent it from gathering momentum.
That is not something Prime Minister Putin would like to see happening, especially in the run-up to Russia’s own March 4 presidential election. Putin will want to maintain his image as strong, unmoveable and defiant of the West. Russian protesters will view any concession on Syria in the Security Council as an incentive to up their game: if Syrians can displace an autocrat, why can’t Russians follow suite?
So the odds are in favor of a Russian veto this week, but there is still a slim possibility they would allow a defanged resolution to pass. The text is already less than crystal clear on what is supposed to happen. It reads like an obfuscated “puzzler” on Car Talk. The part immediately preceding the text on delegation of powers to the vice president reads this way:
Fully supports in this regard the League of Arab States’ initiative set out in its 22 January 2012 decision to facilitate a political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs, including through commencing a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition under the League of Arab States’ auspices, in accordance with the timetable set out by the League of Arab States, aimed at:
So the delegation of powers is not to happen right away. There is to be a serious political dialogue aimed at the delegation of powers. There is lots of wiggle room here: what is the “whole spectrume of the Syrian opposition?” Elements of the opposition will likely refuse to take part. Who is to blame if the dialogue doesn’t happen? What if it takes a long time?
The main Russian concern will be to ensure that any resolution passing the Security Council cannot be interpreted as authorizing the use of force against the Syrian regime. While the Arab League has been at pains to emphasize that it is not asking for military intervention but rather indicating a way forward that will avoid it, the resolution still has a few points on which the Russians can be expected to balk. For example:
stressing that nothing in this resolution compels States to resort to the use of force or the threat of force,
Moscow will want that to read “nothing in this resolution permits States…” Nor will Moscow like this bit at the end:
Decides to review Syria’s implementation of this resolution within 15 days and, in the event that Syria has not complied, to adopt further measures, in consultation with the League of Arab States;
Moscow will read “further measures” as opening the door to military intervention.
But these points seem to me negotiable: the West and the Arab League are far from pressing for the use of force against Bashar al Assad, even if some of the Syrian opposition would support it. How would President Obama justify another war in the Middle East in the midst of an election campaign? Only if Bashar al Assad is dumb enough to commit truly mass atrocities, which he so far has avoided on a daily basis, even as the numbers add up to well over 5000. Washington does not want to engage militarily–it is far more likely to make the mistake of throwing its weight behind the Free Syrian Army, perhaps clandestinely.
If the Russians can get a real commitment to no use of force, and if they would like this problem to go away and not come back before their own elections, they might even abstain on a resolution that, while changed from the current draft, is not too far off in its general outlines. I’m not holding my breath, just hoping that somehow the UNSC can finally move on what is a major threat to international peace and security. Getting the outlines of a transition plan through the Security Council is only a first step, but that’s how journeys start.