During a visit to Washington last week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé sounded determined to force a divided U.N. Security Council to vote on a resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on anti-government protesters, saying the need to show resolve in the face of Syrian repression was worth the risk of provoking a likely Russian veto.
Following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, Juppé told reporters in Washington that he believed that Russia might back down if the allies could muster a significant majority -- say, 11 yes votes in the 15-nation council -- raising the political costs of obstruction.
On Tuesday morning, Juppé offered his strongest hint that France and its Western allies, including the United States, may be preparing to back down and withdraw the text. In response to questions from the French National Assembly, Juppé acknowledged that Western powers have been unable to overcome misgivings about a resolution on Syria from key council members, including the BRICS members Brazil, Russia, India and China, and South Africa. Lebanon, the council's lone Arab country, is expected to vote against the resolution.
The United States had initially cautioned its European partners against forcing a showdown in the council that would simply highly its deep divisions over Syria, providing a political boost to President Bashar al-Assad's government. But Britain, France, and other European governments argued it would be unconscionable for the council to remain silent in the face of mounting atrocities in Syria.
The BRICS have countered that the United States and its European allies overstepped the Security Council's mandate, contained in resolution 1973, authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya. They say that the Western coalition has effectively entered a civil war on behalf of the rebels and that their true aim is the overthrow of Moammar al-Qaddafi's regime.
"We strongly believe that the resolution is being abused for regime change, political assassinations and foreign military occupation," South African President Jacob Zuma told the South African parliament this week.
The Europeans believe they have secured nine votes, the bare minimum required for adoptioin of the Syria resolution in the Security Council. But they have held out hope that they could convince the Russians to back down if they could only secure another couple of votes, thereby isolating Moscow and Beijing, which is expected to back the Russian position. But a week of diplomatic outreach has failed to turn a single vote.
"At the Security Council -- despite all the efforts that we're making, in particular with the British and the Americans -- we still haven't achieved our goal," Juppé said. "Indeed, China and Russia are threatening -- on the grounds of principle -- to exercise their right of veto. We will take the risk of putting a draft resolution condemning the Syrian regime to a vote if we reach a sufficient majority. Currently, we probably have nine votes at the Security Council. We still need to persuade South Africa, India and Brazil; we're working on this every day. I think that if we were able to achieve 11 votes, we would put this draft resolution to a vote and everyone would have to assume their responsibilities; we'd then see if China and Russia would go so far as to veto the resolution."
European governments have directed their lobbying efforts at Brazil and South Africa in the hopes that they could somehow peel them away from the Russian camp. French ambassador Gerard Araud pressed Brazil this week to reconsider its stance in a newspaper interview in the Brazilian paper O Estado De Sao Paolo. "The Security Council's credibility and that of its members is at stake, as it is their mandate is to protect international peace and security," Araud said. "We've been discsuing this text for two weeks. In that time 400 people, including women and children, have died, sometimes under torture. Let's be clear: Inaction on the part of the Security Council is not an option. We must all rally together and we're counting on Brazil."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.