Western nations working on a resolution to pressure Syria to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the slaying of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri are encountering resistance from other Security Council members -- principally Algeria, China and Russia -- U.S., European and U.N officials said Monday.
In a bid to maintain pressure on Syria, the Bush administration is calling for foreign ministers from the 15 Security Council countries to meet in New York on Oct. 31 for the final vote on the resolution and to rally support for Lebanon's attempt to bring perpetrators of Hariri's killing to justice, the State Department said Monday.
President Bush warned Syria that failure to comply with the United Nations will lead to isolation. "We want people to be held to account," Bush said in an interview Monday with al-Arabiya television, adding that "the Syrian government must take the demands of the free world very seriously."
A preliminary report by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor leading a U.N. probe into the Feb. 14 car-bomb killing of Hariri and 22 others, has concluded that senior Syrian officials were almost certainly behind it. Mehlis is scheduled to be questioned Tuesday on his findings at a meeting of the Security Council, where the United States and France will make their case for the passage next week of a resolution demanding Syria's full cooperation with the continuing investigation.
The United States and France both favor the passage of a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, a provision that traditionally empowers the council to impose sanctions and, in some cases, to use military force, to compel cooperation.
But China, which wields veto power, and other council members argued Monday that it would be premature to consider punishing Damascus before Mehlis concludes his investigation on Dec. 15 and the perpetrators are found guilty.
China's U.N ambassador, Guangya Wang, said that compelling Syria's cooperation through the threat of sanctions is unnecessary because Syria has publicly agreed to cooperate. He also noted that Mehlis has indicated the presumption that key suspects in the assassination are innocent until proved guilty in a court of law.
Wang expressed concern over the U.S. and French preference for adopting their resolution under Chapter 7, saying it raised the threat of sanctions. "I think we have to be very careful with Chapter 7," Wang said. "Chapter 7 is the dog that will bite, not just bark."
Algeria's envoy, Abdallah Baali, the lone Arab diplomat on the council, said it is premature to threaten sanctions against Syria, or to even blame the country's political leaders, before those responsible for Hariri's murder are brought to justice, according to a Security Council ambassador.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and senior French officials separately pressed him to support a resolution that would at least require Syria's cooperation with the probe.
Arab and Islamic countries are wary of invoking sanctions, which have been used against Muslim governments, including Libya, Sudan, the former Iraqi government and Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers, over the past 15 years. "That's pretty cold company," the State Department official said.
In an attempt to close the gap with Russia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talked by telephone over the weekend to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a critical player because Moscow is also balking at a tough resolution, U.S. officials said.
The emerging reticence presents a challenge to U.S. efforts to use Mehlis's findings to rally the 15-nation council for tough action, and it threatened to undercut the sense of urgency generated Friday by Bush's calls for action.
In an effort to bridge the differences, France urged the United States to avoid an immediate confrontation with Syria's backers over the possibility of sanctions, and to instead begin a gradual diplomatic campaign aimed at uniting the council behind a series of tough measures that could be supported unanimously.
French officials want to start with a cautious resolution that would include an endorsement of Mehlis's report and his ongoing probe, express support for fragile Lebanon's quest for justice and possibly call for officials to be interviewed outside Syria. Another option is to freeze the assets of Syrian officials named in the Mehlis report and impose a travel ban on them, officials said.
"We have here an opportunity to do justice with an independent inquiry," France's Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Monday. "Let's go to the end . . . if we need to make it longer, let's do it, and afterwards let's see what the consequences should be, including on the question . . . of sanctions."
U.S. officials concede that they may have to compromise in negotiations this week, but they continued to press for the inclusion of a stronger threat of punitive action in their resolution to assure Damascus's cooperation.
Rice suggested to reporters en route to Canada on Monday that the United States may be willing to support French calls for a phased approach. "This is all about Syrian behavior, but if people want to sequence it, fine, we can sequence it," she said. The world "must make very clear to the Syrians that this is a really serious matter and that their nonchalant attitude, their efforts to discredit the investigation . . . are not the attitude of the international community," Rice added.
Bolton expressed confidence that the council will adopt a tough resolution in "the next week or so." He said in an interview today that he is meeting individually with key council members to outline Washington's "general thinking" on a U.S.- and French-sponsored resolution that would send an "unmistakable message" to Syria that "they have to cooperate with the Mehlis commission."
"We'll be looking to see how to maintain that pressure during the coming days as we, of course, listen to the Mehlis report tomorrow," Bolton told reporters following a council meeting on Kosovo. "This is true confessions time now for the government of Syria. No more obstruction, no more half measures. We want substantive cooperation, and we want it immediately."