As the United States Congress moves closer to a vote on whether to approve strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons in August, the Russian government on Monday announced that it would push the Syrian government to place its chemical weapons stock under international control. The declaration, however sincere it is, comes after three years of blocking almost all action from the international community on Damascus, leaving it unclear how this new push will be enforced if Syria backtracks.
The Russian Federation is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, a role that means that while 10 other countries rotate on and off the council for two year terms, Moscow always has a spot on the body. It also means that Russia has the ability to veto any substantive resolution that is before the Security Council, a power it shares with the United States, United Kingdom, China, and France. Given that under international law the Council is meant to be the sole authority for approving the use of force and its decisions are legally binding, this has given Russia a considerable stake in the Syrian crisis. And while it’s definitely used its veto power less since the end of the Cold War, the practice has seen a resurgence since 2011.
Early on in the Syria crisis, when it was becoming apparent that the Assad government would not be stopping the use of violence against the then-peaceful protesters, the matter came before the Security Council with hopes of quick action. The Russians claimed that their perception of NATO overreach in the Libya campaign influenced their intransigence on Syria but other factors include the fact that Syria is one of Russia’s few allies in the region, home to its last naval base outside the former Soviet Union and recipient of billions of dollars in arms sales.
The first signs that Russia would be hard to bring around came with the vetoing of a resolution from France, Britain, and non-permanent members Germany and Portugal in October 2011. The document, which China also voted against, would have condemned the Syrian government’s human rights violations and demanding that peaceful protests be allowed to resume. It also would have had the Council meet again in 30 days to discuss the possible issuance of economic sanctions against Syria, a move that Russia viewed as opening the door to further escalation against Syria should they continue to not comply. “The situation in Syria cannot be considered in the Council separately from the Libyan experience,” Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said after his veto, a thread that would continue throughout the Syrian crisis, even as the death toll crossed the 100,000 killed threshold.
Months of negotiation between the West and Russia ensued, with numerous versions of draft resolutions being passed back and forth. Russia dismissed the West’s as being too expansive, while Western diplomats likewise ruled out Russian drafts as being too lenient on Assad’s government. On February 4, 2012, the West’s draft was put to a vote, even including a clause “noting that nothing in this resolution authorizes measures under Article 42 of the Charter,” the section that allows for military action. Even this wasn’t enough, however, with the draft earning yet another double veto from Russia and China. “A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant,” then-Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said pointedly after the vote, calling the veto “shameful.”
Signs seemed to turn more positive when the Council managed to pass its first resolution on the matter in April of that year after haggling over drafts between the United States and Russia. In the end, while not taking any punitive action against Syria, the unanimous resolution established an observer mission to monitor a cease-fire between the Syrian government and rebel forces, while also endorsing a plan from former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to solve the crisis peacefully.
The victory was short-lived, however, as the mission was faced with a new surge in violence and was eventually forced to withdraw. In a last effort to have the Council move strongly against Assad, the U.K. and France introduced a resolution that threatened to place economic sanctions on Syria for refusing to follow the terms of a peace plan the international community had endorsed in Geneva. Despite the fact that another resolution would be needed to actually place sanction on Damascus, Russia and China vetoed even this draft. “The Security Council has failed utterly in its most important task on its agenda this year,” Rice said at the time. “This is another dark day in Turtle Bay.”
Since then the Security Council has remained mostly deadlocked, due to threats behind the scenes at the U.N. of yet another veto from Russia. Before the shocking vote in the House of Commons to not press forward with military action, the United Kingdom was teeing up a draft at the U.N. that would authorize strikes against Assad, something that Russia surely would have vetoed. Britain has since that vote withdrawn its draft, with no signs that the U.S. or France will take up sponsorship anytime soon.
Russia’s consternation hasn’t been limited to only substantive resolutions; even non-binding statements have been a struggle to have pass lately thanks to Moscow. Statements from the President of the Security Council, a rotating position, require unanimity from the 15 members to be issued, as do the less formal press statements. According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power in remarks at the Center for American Progress on Friday, Russia has in the last two months alone “blocked two resolutions condemning the generic use of chemical weapons and two press statements expressing concern about their use.”
Though Power has only been on the job for a few weeks, she has not shied away from following in her predecessor’s footsteps and harshly critiquing her Russian counterpart. “It is naive to think that Russia is on the verge of changing its position and allowing the U.N. Security Council to assume its rightful role as the enforcer of international peace and security,” Power said, referring to reports that Russian president Vladimir Putin would consider approving force in the face of strong evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons. “In short, the Security Council the world needs to deal with this urgent crisis is not the Security Council we have.”