Syria crisis: West backs down on demand for threat of war in UN resolution

The move means intervention in the conflict is unlikely in the near future

David Usborne
Thursday 19 September 2013 06:38
President Assad meets the former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark in Damascus, who is heading a US delegation to Syria
President Assad meets the former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark in Damascus, who is heading a US delegation to Syria

Britain, France and the United States are ready to back down from a demand that a Security Council resolution on removing chemical weapons from Syria include the threat of military force if the Syrian government does not comply, senior sources have indicated.

The decision could smooth the path to the adoption of the resolution possibly as early as this weekend, and may remove the threat of Western intervention in the civil war there in the immediate future.

Russia, which has veto power, has remained staunchly opposed to any suggestion that it might authorise the potential use of force under Chapter 7 of the UN charter in the event of non-compliance by the regime.

A top diplomat at the UN said he was “optimistic” that Russia, with China following behind, would thus be bought on board for the resolution just in time for the start next week of the UN’s annual General Assembly attended by leaders of most of the world’s nations. It does not mean, however, that authorisation for the use of force might not be sought in a subsequent resolution. Nor would it bar the US from launching its own unilateral strikes without UN authorisation if it chose to.

Discussions are also under way in New York to enable the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to announce during next week’s sessions a start-date in October for broader political peace talks, dubbed Geneva 2, even though hurdles remain in persuading all parties, including wary opposition groups, to attend.

Hitherto, the signals from Western capitals about what enforcement mechanisms would be in the resolution have been ambiguous. On Tuesday on Capitol Hill, the Secretary of State John Kerry said the Geneva pact “will happen only with the United Nations passing a strong resolution”, adding: “It is important that that threat of force stay on the table in order to guarantee the compliance of the Assad regime.”

But the diplomat, who is intimately familiar with the Security Council machinations on the issue, was clear. “We are not asking for a resolution that includes military force,” he said, insisting that the Russians had no grounds, therefore, for their continuing public hand-wringing about what the UN resolution might say about the punishment of Syria should it fail to comply.

“The idea that we are on an escalator that leads to military force, or even sanctions, is completely false,” he emphasised. And making what seemed like an obvious reference to the harsh rhetoric emanating today from Moscow, he said: “We all need to try to calm down.”

Yet the passing of the resolution – without which the Geneva framework agreement would have no standing in law – is still not guaranteed. The atmosphere in New York has been soured not just by Russian resistance to any language on military force but more importantly by the presentation on Monday of the UN inspectors’ report on the 21 August chemical weapons attacks.

While Western capitals have said the report leaves no doubt that the regime was responsible for the attacks, Russia has continued to insist it contains no such evidence and that the munitions containing sarin gas were probably fired instead by rebels to draw the US into the war.

“Without receiving a full picture of what is happening here, it is impossible to call the nature of the conclusions reached by the UN experts anything but politicised, preconceived and one-sided,” the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in Moscow tonight.

The Russian position has left many exasperated. Drawn up by the lead inspector Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, the report “made it abundantly clear that it was the regime that did this and to suggest otherwise is completely fanciful and shows a wilful blindness to all the evidence,” one senior UN diplomat said here. “It shows the desperation of Syria and indeed the Russians.”

It is possible that the Russians will attempt to block a resolution that has any reference to Chapter 7. But the three Western permanent members of the Council will make it clear that use of Chapter 7 does not itself imply authorising force. Rather, the text is likely only to make reference to article 41 of Chapter 7 that rules it out. It states that “the Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the members of the United Nations to apply such measures”.

A subsequent article that would authorise force would be excluded and not cited in the text precisely to allay Russian fears. Indeed, one source said tonight that, should Russia want to go further and demand the insertion of language explicitly excluding the use of force in the resolution, “we would consider that”.

While final obstacles to adopting the resolution were being tackled in closed-door talks between the permanent five members of the Security Council, the timetable to final adoption by all 15 members was being held up by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, in The Hague, which first must agree the terms of the US-Russia framework agreement reached in Geneva.

Next steps: Testing the pledge

* The 41-member Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, is set to agree a text on Friday formalising the pact reached by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva with fine print on implementation, including schedules for inspectors and deadlines.

* Syria has until Saturday to submit a full declaration of its chemical arsenal to the OPCW, which is the overseer of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

* The UN Security Council will try to adopt a resolution that gives legal force to the obligations on Syria as early as this weekend.

* The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, may announce a date next week for the start in October of Syrian peace talks.

* Ake Sellstrom, the chief UN inspector, will return to Syria to continue investigating chemical weapons violations.

France and Russia among countries not giving 'fair share' to Syria crisis appeals - but UK does its bit

Oxfam research reveals that many donor countries are failing to provide their share of the urgently needed funding for the humanitarian response to the Syria crisis.

While the need for a political solution to the crisis is as urgent as ever, Oxfam says donors must also prioritise funding the UN's £3bn ($5bn) appeals. Qatar and Russia have both committed just 3 per cent of their 'fair share' for the humanitarian effort, while France is struggling to reach half of its fair share (47 per cent).

In contrast, the UK has given 154 per cent of its fair share and Kuwait tops the league table with 461 per cent.

The research, released in advance of next Wednesday's high-level donor meeting in New York calculates the amount of aid that should be given according to a country's Gross National Income and its overall wealth.

The US is currently the largest donor to the UN appeals, giving 63 per cent of its fair share, but 'must do more' to help those affected by the Syrian conflict, the study adds.

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