“The international community hasn’t minced words,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in welcoming Saturday’s passage of a Security Council resolution seeking to facilitate humanitarian aid access in Syria. “This is a resolution of concrete steps to answer the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”
The resolution passed unanimously, but the price for getting that result was the removal from the draft, at Moscow’s insistence, of an explicit threat of sanctions against Syria if it failed to comply with the measure’s demands for parties to lift sieges of populated areas, allow aid in, and stop attacks against civilians.
Russia only dropped its threat to veto the resolution after references to sanctions and the International Criminal Court were excised. Russia and China have vetoed three previous Syria resolutions since the conflict broke out three years ago.
Instead of threatening sanctions against violators, the resolution as passed says the council “expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance.” Any such steps would require a new resolution, however, once again allowing Russia to wield its veto to protect its ally in Damascus.
Western council members put a brave face on the outcome, with Britain’s Ambassador to the U.N. Mark Lyall Grant saying that while his government would like to have seen a stronger text, “we are committed to coming back to the council to seek further action if the demands are not met.”
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power conceded that the resolution requires any case of non-compliance to “come back to the council,” but argued that the inclusion of language on “further steps” was noteworthy.
“We believe that that language is actually a significant hook, and a significant commitment by the parties on the Security Council,” she told reporters after the vote.
Power also said the resolution contains important specifics, rather than the customary “generalized statements demanding progress and the like.” These specifics included the naming of areas under siege, a demand for the regime to allow cross-border access, and a reference to “barrel bombs” which the regime has been using in populated areas, she said.
The last time the council managed to pass a resolution on Syria was in September – on that occasion relating to the surrender of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal, following a deadly chemical attack near Damascus the previous month.
Then, too, the resolution language was diluted to remove any direct enforcement mechanism or automatic penalties for non-compliance.
A timetable for handing over the chemical weapons for destruction was laid out, but any council response to a violation requires the adoption of a yet another Security Council resolution. And Russia at the time made clear that it would only support such a resolution if it is “100 percent” certain that a violation has taken place.
So when the Assad regime went on to miss two key deadlines in the timetable for handing over the chemical materials, it did so with impunity. Russia came to its defense – backing its claim that security concerns and bad weather were to blame for the delays – and although the U.S. and other Western members criticized those infringements there has been no talk of returning to the council to consider punitive measures.
The regime had been obliged to transport its most dangerous (“priority one’) chemicals to the port of Latakia for removal by foreign cargo ships by Dec. 31, and the rest of its 1,300-metric ton stockpile by Feb. 5. From Latakia, the chemicals are to be shipped to an Italian port and loaded onto an American ship that has been modified to neutralize the agents at sea, with June 30 the target date for the process to be completed.
The regime missed both the December and February deadlines. As of late last week, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Robert Mikulak said a mere 11 percent of the stockpile, and less than five percent of the priority one toxins, had left Syria’s shores.
Syria has now submitted to the OPCW a new proposal – an offer to complete the removal of all chemicals in 100 days. That would take until about the end of May, a mere one month before the resolution’s deadline for the entire arsenal to be eliminated.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called Syria’s refusal to meet the deadlines “a troubling indication that the Assad regime may be seeking to retain this deadly arsenal.”
“The 100-day delay it has proposed is unacceptable and violates its obligations under the U.N. Security Council resolution that mandates the destruction of the entire chemical weapons program,” he said. “Russia’s refusal to pressure its ally to meet its obligations has allowed the regime to continue its obstruction.”