Russia and China today cast a rare double veto to block a U.S. and European-backed draft resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown on protesters, exposing the first major rift in the U.N. Security Council over its response to the wave of popular uprisings that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
The draft garnered a paltry 9 votes in the 15-member council, the bare minimum required for adoption of a resolution, as Brazil, India, Lebanon, and South Africa expressed their unease with the Western press for sanctions by abstaining on the vote.
The Russian and Chinese actions marked the defeat of months of European-led diplomatic efforts to impose sanctions on Damascus for unleashing a violent response to the demonstrations. Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Al Jafaari, reacted to the veto with a smile, and later thanked the "voices of the wise" on the council who confronted what he characterized as the colonial and military aspirations of a bloc of Western powers that is "doomed to failure."
Speaking after the vote, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, and China's U.N. ambassador, Li Boadong, expressed concern that the resolution would serve to exacerbate tensions in Syria and could serve as a pretext for possible regime change.
Churkin blasted the Western initiative as reflecting a "philosophy of confrontation" with Syria that would undermine any efforts to pursue a political settlement between the government and the opposition.
The vote triggered an angry reaction from Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, who vowed that this "veto will not stop us" from continuing to press for the Bashar al-Assad government to end a crackdown that has killed nearly 3,000 people.
"The United States is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security," said Rice, expressing unusual emotion. "Several members have sought for weeks to weaken and strip bare any text that would have defended the lives of innocent civilians from Assad's brutality."
Rice said that the council's split provided a stark illustration of which countries supported the aspirations of pro-democracy demonstrators in Syria and the rest of the Arab world. "During this season of change, the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators," she said. "Let there be no doubt: this is not about military intervention. This is not about Libya. That is a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
The clash comes weeks after the U.N. Security Council reached agreement on a statement, generally considered less forceful than a resolution, condemning Syria's conduct.
The council's European members had initially pressed for a resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on Syria, and targeted President Assad and more than 20 of his closest associates with a series of sanctions, including a travel ban and a freeze on financial assets.
The watered-down draft resolution blocked by Russia and China today "strongly condemned the continued grave and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities." It accused the regime of carrying out "arbitrary executions," torture, and enforced disappearances to end the protests.
The resolution demanded that the Syrian government immediately "cease the use of force against civilians," release political prisoners and detained protesters, and grant a range of other "fundamental freedoms" to its people. Had the resolution passed, it would have stipulated that had Syria failed to comply with the demands, within 30 days the council would have met to consider "other options" against Syria, a veiled reference to sanctions.
But the compromise was not enough to thwart the Russian veto, according to diplomats.
It was the first time one of the council's five veto-wielding powers has cast a no vote since February, when the Obama administration blocked a Palestinian-backed draft resolution denouncing Israel's settlement policy as an illegal obstacle to the Middle East peace process. It was also the first time China and Russia have cast a joint veto since July 2008, when they both vetoed a U.S.-drafted resolution condemning Zimbabwe's human rights record.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.