(CNSNews.com) – Twenty-one weeks after Syrian President Bashar Assad launched a crackdown on anti-government protests, the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday issued its first response to the crisis in the form of a statement condemning the violence that has killed more than 1,600 people.
In the hierarchy of Security Council actions, a “presidential statement” like the one agreed to on Wednesday is a more robust response to a situation than a mere “press statement,” but it is considerably weaker than a legally binding resolution.
Despite having failed since late April to achieve a resolution due largely to a threatened Russian and Chinese veto, the U.S. and other Western governments put a brave face on the outcome, insisting it was a “strong” response that reflects a unified international position.
A more candid assessment came from Russia’s envoy Vitaly Churkin, whom RIA Novosti quoted as describing a Security Council statement as a “soft” measure.
The statement, read out by the ambassador of India – which holds the rotating presidency this month – came after three days of “urgent” deliberations.
It “condemns widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities” and called for “an immediate end to all violence and urges all sides to act with utmost restraint, and to refrain from reprisals, including attacks against state institutions.”
In a nod to Assad’s allies like Russia, the statement also said the council noted his stated commitment to reform. But it regretted lack of progress and urged the government to implement its commitments.
The statement further stressed the council’s “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria.” Russian and Chinese opposition to a resolution has centered on concerns about outside interference, and the possibility of military action down the road as was the case in Libya. The failed draft resolution contained no language that could be used to legitimize military action.
Passage of a resolution requires the support of nine of the Council’s 15 members as well as no veto from a permanent member. A draft resolution introduced by European members with U.S. support ran into opposition from permanent members Russia and China, joined by temporary members Lebanon, Brazil, South Africa and India.
Council presidential statements imply consensus. Lebanon did not block the reading out of the statement, but said immediately afterwards that it was dissociating itself from consensus.
Lebanese media quoted U.N. envoy Caroline Ziade as saying, “Today more than ever the Lebanese stand by Syria and its sovereignty and the council’s statement does not help improve the situation there, that’s why Lebanon is dissociating itself from the statement.”
Lebanon’s government is dominated by Hezbollah, which has been supported and armed by Damascus for decades.
By contrast the opposition March 14 alliance led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri earlier Wednesday urged the government to voice support at the Security Council for the Syrian people’s right to freedom. It also warned the government against trying to associate Lebanon with the Assad regime.
In a conference call briefing after the statement was read, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice called it “important and strong” and “long overdue,” saying that the council had finally been “able to speak with one voice” about the violence.
Asked whether a resolution had not been the desired outcome, Rice agreed that the U.S. had strongly supported the original resolution initiative.
However, “from the United States’ point of view, what was most important to us was strong content – and a clear and unified condemnation. We didn’t want a split council and we didn’t want a weak statement.”
“What was most important from a U.S. point of view was a clear and unequivocal condemnation of the Syrian authorities for the abhorrent and crazy violence they perpetrated against their own people. And we got that and so we’re pleased.”
“We did not make any concessions,” she said in response to another question. “We negotiated and obtained a very strong, clear-cut condemnation. That’s a large part of the reason why we think this is a very strong outcome.”
Rice argued that the regime had expected to avoid condemnation, adding that “they must be quite surprised and disappointed by the outcome.” (There was no immediate reaction from Damascus.)
As for Lebanon’s comment afterwards, Rice disputed that the move deprived the statement of unanimity.
“It was a unanimous statement by the Security Council and we don’t view their statement after the fact as in any way undermining that unity.”
France, Britain and Germany, which had led the unsuccessful resolution drive, also welcomed the statement.
“The support for this statement throughout the Security Council demonstrates the rising international concern at the unacceptable behavior of the regime and shows that President Assad is increasingly isolated,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague
His French counterpart, Alain Juppe, called the statement “an unambiguous message to Damascus.”
“This text is the product of the efforts we have made with our partners since the beginning of the events in Syria,” he said. “It is a turning point in the international community’s attitude.”
German envoy Miguel Berger came closest to hinting at disappointment about the resolution’s failure, although he too called the statement “a strong and united message to the Syrian leadership and the Syrian people.”
“It comes two months after we had introduced our draft resolution, our European draft resolution, to the council,” Berger said. “It comes many hundreds of deaths later than we would have wanted to have this clear signal, but at least I think it is a good step forward that we have achieved it today.”
Ambassador remains on post
Meanwhile, Italy on Tuesday became the first country to recall its ambassador in Damascus, citing “horrible repression against the Syrian civilian population.” The foreign ministry in Rome urged other European Union member states to follow suit.
Some Republicans – among them Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), John Thune (S.D.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Minnesota governor and Republican 2012 presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty – have been urging President Obama for months to recall Ambassador Robert Ford, a recess appointee.
The administration argues that his continued presence there enables him to deal both with the government and with the opposition and ordinary citizens.
Ford is in Washington this week for Senate confirmation hearings – his recess appointment expires on Dec. 31 – but State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday that “he plans on heading back to Syria just as soon as his consultations are over.”
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies Elliott Abrams, writing in the Weekly Standard, suggested questions the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should put to Ford, including several relating to the value of his remaining in Damascus.
“Your visit to Hama [last month] was the most effective action you’ve taken in the few months you have been at post. If the Assad government is now going to prevent you from repeating that visit, why should you stay in Syria?” read one of Abrams’ questions.
Abrams also recalled news reports in April about a U.S. diplomat being detained and “roughed up.”
“Again, given that the embassy has been attacked and a member of its staff has been illegally detained and assaulted, when do we rightly say, ‘enough is enough,’ and pull the ambassador? If we do not, isn’t the lesson that such conduct may be conducted with impunity?”
According to media reports, only one member of the Foreign Relations Committee was present to question Ford during Tuesday’s confirmation hearing.