This is the hard part: Getting that Syria plan through the United Nations

September 10, 2013

Diplomats meet at the United Nations Security Council (Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images)

All the major players have agreed in principle for Syria to give up its chemical weapons, but now comes the hard and important part: making it official and binding with a United Nations Security Council resolution. That's surely going to involve some tough negotiations in the council over what the resolution looks like. Now we have the starting point for those negotiations: a draft resolution submitted by France and backed by the United States and Britain.

The process now is negotiating with Russia to soften the resolution enough that Moscow won't veto it. The end result, if the world gets there, will surely look different from France's draft plan. But it's telling to see this opening gambit from what is known as P3, or the three permanent Western members of the U.N. Security Council: France, Britain and United States. The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza summarized the draft resolution in five concise points on Twitter. Here they are, with some quick thoughts below:

It's important to remember that this is a negotiation. Point 5 and maybe even Point 1 could well just be gimmes -- proposals meant to be negotiated away. International Criminal Court trials would be difficult to make work and, more to the point, probably wouldn't happen until after the conflict ends, which is not a high priority right now. A condemnation might make it through, but Russia will be hesitant to allow something that specifically calls out the Bashar al-Assad regime. Russian officials are touchy about that sort of thing, which they worry could someday be used against them.

Points 2 and 3 have a pretty good shot at surviving, assuming that Russia hasn't been bluffing all along. The big sticking point will be No. 4: enforcement. The United States, Britain and France really want an enforcement mechanism; they believe, rightly, that Syria is only promising to do this because it fears military strikes. If the United Nations passes something without an enforcement mechanism, that threat could go away, and then Assad has no real incentive to follow through on his promises.

Russia opposes an enforcement mechanism that involves the use of force. The debate between Russia and the P3 states will likely turn on whether the resolution would be authorized under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, Article 42 of which says the world can use military force "to maintain or restore international peace and security." This was how the United Nations did it with Libya in 2011, which is one reason why Russia is highly skeptical of using it again. But the P3 states are likely to insist on this. So it's going to be tough to find an agreement.

Here's how the United States, France and Britain would have to thread this needle: Russia's top priority here is that no one use military force against Syria. It's naturally wary, then, of allowing a U.N. resolution that would approve military action against Syria. The only way that Moscow would allow that resolution to pass is if it believes that the United States will definitely bomb Syria if it fails. Russia would rather have a possible U.S. attack on Syria than a definite U.S. attack on Syria. So, if Obama wants to take away Syria's chemical weapons and he wants to avoid bombing Syria, he probably needs to convince Russia that he's willing to bomb Syria. Diplomacy is messy.

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Max Fisher · September 10, 2013