On Wednesday 12th April 2017 Russia for the eighth time exercised its right to veto a Western proposed Resolution concerning Syria in the UN Security Council. One other country – Bolivia – voted with Russia, and three others – Kazakhstan, China and Ethiopia – abstained.
There is considerable misunderstanding about this Resolution. It did not seek to set up an investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack. The Russians have repeatedly pointed out that a Security Council Resolution is not needed to set up such an investigation, which the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (“OPCW”) already has a mandate to undertake. All parties including the US and the Syrian government now agree that the OPCW should undertake an investigation, and there is now no doubt one will happen.
The purpose of this Resolution when it was first proposed last week was to shape the direction of the investigation, and to prepare the way for sanctions against Syria under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in the event that the investigation reported that the Syrian military was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack.
It appears that the Resolution was watered down during discussions and that the draft the Russians vetoed no longer pointed the finger of blame at the Syrian military as the Resolution as originally drafted had done. However the Resolution continued to threaten Syria with sanctions under Chapter VII, and since it has been Russia’s consistent policy throughout the Syrian crisis that it will not allow a Resolution to pass that references Chapter VII, that guaranteed that Russia would veto it.
This is a direct by-product of the 2011 Libyan crisis when Russia failed to veto two Western sponsored Resolutions which authorised action under Chapter VII after receiving assurances that the Resolutions would not be used by the Western powers to achieve regime change in Libya. Once the Resolutions were passed, the Western powers however immediately went back on those assurances, and used them to justify a military campaign in Libya which was intended to achieve regime change.
In the aftermath of that debacle the Russians have resolved never to let the same thing happen again, and if only for that reason any Resolution which refers to Chapter VII now runs the risk of a Russian veto. Had Western actions not caused trust between Russia and the Western powers to break down so completely, it is conceivable that the Russians might have allowed yesterday’s Resolution to pass by abstaining as the Chinese did.
As it happens yesterday’s Resolution is anyway an exercise in irrelevance. Since everyone now agrees that an OPCW investigation of the Khan Sheikhoun incident should take place, there was no need for it. The US anyway trashed the whole reasoning behind the Resolution when it attacked Syria whilst the Resolution was still being debated.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that once again the only reason why the Resolution was presented to the UN Security Council and put to the vote at all was to embarrass the Russians. The relatively subdued comments of the various ambassadors during the UN Security Council debate shows that they were all aware of the fact.
As for the Russians, their response will be their usual one, which is to shrug their shoulders and carry on.