|The United Nations is hamstrung in terms of its actions against Syria by one key player: Russia [EPA]|
As the Arab League asks the UN to endorse its plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer powers to his deputy, all eyes are on Russia, which holds the power of veto within the UN Security Council.
Russia and China vetoed an October UN resolution condemning Syria and threatening sanctions, in the wake of more than ten months of violence there, and Moscow is expected to lead arguments against any further measures as the council meets this week.
“Every signal they have given, they have been very critical of sanctions,” said Alex Pravda, director of the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre at St Antony’s College, Oxford University.
Russia’s abstention from the Security Council vote which led to NATO operations in Libya continues to weigh on the minds of its diplomats, said Pravda.
“So at the end of the day, it’s a choice between voting against or abstaining … and I think they might well abstain,” he said.
The draft resolution being discussed in New York calls for “political transition” in Syria.
While it does not explicitly call for military action, or UN sanctions, it does say that the council could “adopt further measures” if Damascus were not to comply.
Resolutions need nine votes in favour and no vetoes to pass, and Western envoys say 10 nations have so far pledged to approve the measure.
But Russia is the real “X factor” here, and has several courses of action it could take – each with its own consequences:
A veto is precisely the sort of tough message Russia might want to send the European Union and US, but it would come at a cost, alienating Arab League members.
While Moscow has not explicitly threatened to scupper the European and Arab resolution, a veto remains, thus far, the most plausible of scenarios.
Russian officials have said that the current resolution draft is “unacceptable”, in that it requires Assad to step down.
Furthermore, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has much to lose in an election year by appearing weak in the face of Western pressure at this time.
“At the moment … you have a fairly aggressive, assertive tone from Putin, and even from the usually middle-of-the-road Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov,” said Pravda.
Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Centre in Beirut, added: “Anything short of a veto at the UN would mean that Russia feels that Bashar al-Assad has not given [Russian diplomats] enough to work with at the UN – that is, some clear promise of reforms or political transition, or at least scope for meaningful negotiation.”
Russia may feel that the negative consequences of a veto outweigh the benefits of blocking the resolution. Abstaining would enable Russia to register its opposition to the measure, while allowing it to pass.
However, abstaining from the vote on the draft resolution might be seen as tacitly supporting not only military intervention in Syria – which recently bought around $550m in Russian arms – but also Assad’s removal.
Moreover, if Assad does fall, Russia might lose its naval base near Latakia – a valuable strategic point in the Mediterranean.
The Arab League, the US and the EU are attempting to persuade Russia to abstain, arguing that a vote against the resolution would be a vote against the Arab world, diplomats say.
Pravda said that, if the EU held out some “carrot” – some economic incentives, perhaps energy deals, then it might succeed in getting Russia to abstain.
Repeated calls by Al Jazeera and emails for comment from the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the EU in Brussels went unanswered.
Moscow has also argued that the Arab League is divided and that its plan does not have the full and unanimous support of all league members.
Most notably, Algeria seems to back Damascus, while Qatar and other Gulf states have expressed doubts about the efficacy of the Arab League mission in Syria.
Russian backing for the resolution is unlikely, although so is external military intervention, said Sayigh.
“That’s not what is really at stake. Nor is it really economic sanctions,” he said, calling them “slow and counterproductive”.
But the question is whether voting yes – thus strengthening ties with the EU – is worth the cost of supporting a resolution which Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister says would push Syria “onto a path to civil war”.
Sayigh argues that a civil war, something beyond “low-level and maybe chaotic violence”, is unlikely.
A yes vote from Russia could also come about if the Western powers and Arab League watered down the resolution, such that it would no longer ask for a transfer of power.
The resolution would also have to blame both Assad’s government and the opposition – which is becoming increasingly militarised – for the nearly year-long violence.
The US and European delegations are unlikely to support the kind of amendments necessary to secure Russia’s active support.
|Negotiating the negotiations|
Western diplomats say Russia has been playing for time for months, slowing down negotiations to prevent the Security Council from doing anything at all.
This could be an attempt to give Assad’s government more time to crush the rebellion, diplomats say.
Pravda told Al Jazeera that Russia is “always more pragmatic than they say they’re going to be”, and that, ultimately, the most important relationship for them to protect is that with EU – although it is unlikely that this vote will have long- term repercussions in their economic and strategic relationship.
But US and European diplomats will nonetheless want to prevent any attempts by Russia to delay the vote, which they reportedly want by the end of this week.
“Anything that leads to a negotiated solution is best,” said Sayigh.