Clinton and Russia Spar Over U.N. Resolution on Syria

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You know things are bad when Russia won’t return Hillary Clinton’s calls.

For more than two days now, Clinton has been waiting for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to call her back to discuss a pending United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. Lavrov is traveling in Australia, prompting some members of the U.S. diplomatic press corps to wonder if Russian relations with the Land Down Under now trump those with the United States. “I’ll refer those questions to the Russian embassy,” Mark Toner, a spokesman for the State Department, coughed politely to reporters Tuesday afternoon. So much for resetting that reset button. (READ: Why ousting Assad is easier said than done.)

Clinton, meanwhile, traveled to New York Tuesday to try and convince the Security Council to impose sanctions recommended by the Arab League against Syria. Arab League monitors left Syria over the weekend due to escalating violence – fighting that rocked the suburbs of Damascus this weekend. Human rights groups estimate that more than 100 people were killed Sunday and more than 6,000, including 4,500 civilians, have been killed since anti-Assad protests began in mid-March.

“The United States urges the Security Council to back the Arab League’s demand that the Syrian Government immediately stop all attacks against civilians and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations,” Clinton told the Security Council. “In accordance with the Arab League’s plan, Syria must also release all arbitrarily detained citizens, return its military and security forces to their barracks, and allow full and unhindered access for monitors, humanitarian workers, and journalists.”

While the Arab League’s plan has the support of the U.S. and Europe, Russia seems likely to veto it – thus the cold shoulder from Lavrov. Russia and China vetoed a similar resolution on Oct. 4, objecting to language that they said amounted to a call for regime change in Syria. The two countries, both of whom wield Security Council vetoes, grudgingly let through a comparable resolution on Libya last year, a resolution that the U.S. and Europe took as license to empower Libyan rebels through airstrikes and, allegedly, arms sales – moves that eventually led to the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.“The international community unfortunately did take sides in Libya and we would never allow the Security Council to authorize anything similar to what happened in Libya,” Lavrov told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lateline program on Tuesday. A second Libya “would be a disaster for the Arab world and for world politics.”

Still, Clinton emphasized, Syria is not Libya. “I know that some members here are concerned that we are headed toward another Libya,” she said. “That is a false analogy. Syria is a unique situation that requires its own approach, tailored to the specific circumstances on the ground. And that’s what the Arab League has proposed – a path for a political transition that would preserve Syria’s unity and institutions.”

Assad has done an effective job of using tribal and ethnic strife to keep Syrian opposition fragmented. “The insurgency is picking up steam, popular support. It is becoming a potent challenger to the Assad forces. It has mounted a few spectacular operations recently, and I expect more,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “At the same time, it is small, disorganized, underequipped, incapable of holding territory. The Free Syrian Army only accepts holders of military IDs for the moment, and turns down volunteers, though this might well change. In any case, it is turning in a central actor in Syria that will perhaps eclipse the political opposition and drive the country toward full-fledged war.”

Russia in particular is heavily invested in Syria, its most important ally in the Middle East. It has a naval base there – its last on the Mediterranean Sea. Russia also outraged Western leaders earlier this month when it inked a $550 million deal with Assad to supply Damascus with trainer aircraft. The Russians have floated the idea of hosting “inter-Syrian talks” between the Assad regime and the opposition in Moscow. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s representative to the United Nations hinted heavily at a Russian veto to reporters over the weekend.

“I made it quite clear that we as the Russian delegation did not see that draft as a basis on which we can agree,” Churkin said in the clip above, “however, let me emphasize… that does not mean that we refuse to engage with the co-sponsors of the resolution.”

It remains unclear if China, also a large trading partner with Syria, would also veto.

So, why go through the kabuki of holding a vote most expect to fail? Because it adds pressure and ostracizes Russia as atrocities mount in Syria. So, expect more votes like this to keep on coming until Russia folds or Assad falls.

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