Chinese, Russian and Algerian diplomats on Wednesday strongly opposed a U.S.-backed draft resolution threatening sanctions against Syria if it fails to provide extensive cooperation to U.N. investigators probing the slaying of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
The United States, France and Britain introduced a resolution Tuesday that would immediately ban the travel and freeze the assets of Syrian officials suspected by U.N. investigators of participating in the Valentine's Day truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others. The measure threatens to impose economic sanctions on Syria if it fails to grant the U.N. team the right to go anywhere, see any document or interview any individual in Syria, including President Bashar Assad.
State Department officials said Wednesday that they had received indications from at least 10 Security Council members, including China and Russia, that they would attend a meeting of foreign ministers on Monday to vote on the resolution. They expressed confidence that Beijing and Moscow, who wield veto power, would not block the resolution.
The resolution would grant the U.N. prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis of Germany, extraordinary powers to demand cooperation from Syrian authorities, including the right to order the arrest of Syrian officials. Critics of the U.S.-backed approach say that although Syria must cooperate with Mehlis's team, the resolution is an excessive intrusion into Syria's internal affairs, with no Syrian official having been convicted of a crime.
China's ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, said it will "be difficult to accept" the resolution as it stands now. "It's too tough. I think the sanctions will be a difficult problem for us," he said.
A spokesman for Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "Russia will be doing everything necessary to prevent attempts to impose sanctions against Syria," according to Russian news agencies. But Russia's permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Andrey I. Denisov, hinted it is unlikely that Moscow would cast its veto. "Do you see a minister coming here to apply veto rights?" he said, referring to Lavrov's planned participation in the council vote. "It makes no sense. There are permanent representatives for that."
The specter of Iraq loomed over the negotiations as diplomats expressed suspicions that the United States and its European partners are trying to subject Syria to the same pressure they applied to the former Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. The Security Council at that time subjected Iraq to more than a decade of economic sanctions and U.N. weapons inspections. "We don't want to make Mehlis another Butler," Wang said, referring to Richard Butler of Australia, the combative former chief U.N. weapons inspector.
Despite the misgivings, John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was upbeat about the prospects for the resolution's adoption. "I must say, the early signs are encouraging," Bolton told reporters Wednesday morning. "It is a strong resolution. We feel it's important to send a strong and clear signal to the government of Syria, that its obstruction of the Mehlis commission to date is unacceptable. And I think that's had a lot of resonance so far here in New York."
Bolton said he will try to address the concerns of the resolution's critics, but he noted that "what we're not going to accept is any watering down of the unambiguous message to Syria that it must cooperate."
"We're not looking for consensus at any price," he added. "We want the strongest possible resolution with the broadest possible support. That's after all what multilateral diplomacy is all about."
The Bush administration has been quietly pressing key Security Council members, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice engaging in telephone diplomacy this week with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Lavrov and others, the State Department said Wednesday. Washington and Paris are focusing on Algeria, the lone representative of the 22-nation Arab bloc -- and a longtime ally of Syria.
Algeria's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah Baali, said that "we have serious problems with several parts" of the resolution, noting that it goes well beyond supporting Mehlis's investigation. He cited one provision that he said could be interpreted as requiring Syria to commit to halting support for Palestinian and Iraqi militants. "We understand the need to ensure full cooperation of Syria," he said. "We don't believe that the time has come to even threaten sanctions."
The dispute in the council played out Wednesday as U.N. special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen of Norway issued a report expressing alarm about the increase of terrorist attacks against Lebanese politicians and journalists and the smuggling of weapons and fighters from Syria to armed Palestinian groups in Lebanon. U.N. officials have privately expressed concern that Syria may be sponsoring these activities to undermine Lebanon's security.
"The situation remains volatile in Lebanon," he said. "In the past six months, there have been a number of worrying developments affecting the stability of Lebanon, particularly in the form of terrorist acts and the illegal transfer of arms and people across the borders into Lebanon."
The 15-page report marks Roed-Larsen's second update on the implementation of Resolution 1559, which calls on Syria to withdraw its military and intelligence forces from Lebanon, endorses free and fair elections there, and calls for the disarmament of armed militias.
Roed-Larsen cited "considerable progress" on elections and the departure of Syrian security forces.
He said that Lebanese authorities had been unable to achieve "tangible results" in disarming Hezbollah, Lebanon's most powerful militia. "A group engaged in the democratic political process . . . cannot simultaneously possess an autonomous armed operational capacity outside the authority of the state," Roed-Larsen said.
He said it is "incompatible with the restoration and full respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of the country."
Wright reported from Washington.