US officials' announcement of a possible new United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons has raised further hopes for US-Russia cooperation in ending Syria’s long civil war, but the road ahead is likely to be a slow one.
Secretary of State John Kerry did not definitively say that Washington and Moscow had reached an understanding on a resolution. Instead, he was cautious but clearly optimistic in stating that he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “talked about the UN resolution and indeed I believe reached an agreement that should try to see that resolution voted shortly.” As of this writing, whether Lavrov also believes they reached an agreement is not immediately clear. Interestingly, official Russian media reports of the possible deal quote only US and Western sources in describing it.
Kerry described the draft resolution, which apparently focuses on investigating chemical weapons use in Syria, as establishing “a process of accountability which has been missing.” In no small part, this process has been missing precisely because the United States and Russia have disagreed over whether and how to go about it. Last year, Russia (and China) vetoed a broader UN resolution seeking to refer alleged war crimes in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
One problem is that while US officials clearly seek to use any investigative process to apply further pressure to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, Moscow has been reluctant to do this — and, in fact, believes that opposition fighters have also been using chemical weapons. Senior Russian officials and parliamentarians are also suspicious that Washington could eventually use an investigation to justify military action against the Syrian regime. If the Security Council passes a resolution, Moscow is likely to seek to limit its scope to prevent this.
Another problem is that Moscow vetoed a resolution intended to establish a tribunal to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. A Foreign Ministry statement explained the veto by saying that the “initiators” brought the matter to a “vote in the Council without discussing options other than their own,” despite Russian concerns that this was “counterproductive” and “had no precedent in the past.”
The deaths of the MH-17 passengers is a far more sensitive matter for Moscow. From a legal perspective, a finding that Russian military personnel or Russian government officials were involved in supplying the Buk surface-to-air missile believed to have destroyed the plane could indirectly implicate Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russia’s head of state and commander in chief. Taking into account that Washington would likely veto any similar effort to establish an international tribunal that could pursue US officials, and that the United States does not itself participate in the ICC, Russia’s government is understandably uninterested in starting a process that could produce such an outcome. Some in the country might even believe that the process is intended to do so. Putin expressed his personal opposition to the resolution in a telephone conversation with the prime minister of the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the Syria proposal appears conceptually similar and follows the Ukraine veto within days — so it could be a risky move.
That said, Kerry and Lavrov have clearly been engaged in intense discussions, meeting twice during one week, in Doha (with their Saudi Arabian counterpart) and in Kuala Lumpur, on the margins of an annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. To date, Lavrov has been more cautious than Kerry, saying only, “We agree that we need to join efforts in combating this phenomenon [the Islamic State] as soon as possible and as efficiently as possible,” but acknowledging, “We haven’t developed a common approach to how exactly this can be done.” Lavrov added that US and Russian “experts” would continue to discuss this, “guided by existing initiatives.” This might be a veiled reference to earlier US-Russian cooperation on Syria’s chemical weapons.
One interesting question is which “experts” would do the talking. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has publicly attacked Moscow quite harshly over Russia’s roles in both the Syrian civil war and in Ukraine — and, in a very personal way, over its July 2015 veto of a resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre during Yugoslavia’s civil war (one of her formative experiences as a young reporter). So she is not necessarily the best bridge-builder in the current US-Russia relationship — though clearly a key participant. Still, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, earlier expressed openness to discussing the issue with his American counterparts.
Looking ahead to the fall, Putin seems increasingly likely to attend the annual UN General Assembly in New York in September, though the Kremlin has not confirmed his participation. However, since it is the 70th session — an important anniversary — Putin may see an opportunity to deliver a high-profile statement to an international audience. From this perspective, successful US-Russia cooperation on a new Syria resolution, following the Iran nuclear resolution, could help to shore up a Security Council frayed by numerous disagreements and might encourage Russia’s president to take a positive approach.
Nevertheless, Russia remains frustrated with US airstrikes into Syria, which Lavrov recently described as “a violation of international law” and “an obstacle on the road to forming a united front to fight terrorism, including the Islamic State and [Jabhat al-Nusra].” If that side of the US-Russia relationship remains dominant in Syria and elsewhere, the Security Council — and the September General Assembly — could have a very different tone.