U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov met under the steely gaze of Russian leader Vladimir
Putin, whose portrait hung over their negotiating table at U.N. headquarters,
and hammered out their latest agreement Thursday on a U.N. Security Council
resolution to scrap Syria's chemical weapons.
The presidential portrait was a subtle reminder that Putin's
top diplomats hold the home-court advantage at the United Nations. Lavrov headed
Russia's U.N. delegation for a decade; Putin's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, has
served here for more than seven years. Together, they enjoy vastly greater
experience navigating the intricacies of the U.N. Security Council
parliamentary rules than their American counterparts. Russia's deputy foreign
minister, Gennady Gatilov, a former member of the Russia diplomatic delegation,
was actually a U.N. employee.
America's national security team is hardly composed of novices
on U.N. matters. As a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
Kerry frequently engaged in U.N. diplomacy. Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's
national security advisor, is one of the longest-serving American envoys to the
U.N. -- and a willing and able sparring partner of Churkin. Samantha
Power, while still untested around the Security Council's horseshoe table,
has been a keen student of the United Nations for years, reporting from the
field in Africa and the Balkans and authoring a biography of slain U.N.
official Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Still, for most of the past two years, Lavrov and Churkin
have largely defined the rules of the game in the U.N. Security Council, effectively
constraining American and European attempts to use the U.N. Security Council
to apply economic or political pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The relatively toothless deal struck Thursday is just the latest example.
After the Syrian government's alleged chemical
weapons attack on Aug. 21 in the Damascus suburbs, the United States for the
first time threatened to bypass the United Nations and launch punitive U.S. airstrikes against Syrian targets. That threat prompted Syria to offer its most far-reaching
concessions during the two-and-a-half-year civil war, agreeing to a Russian
plan to destroy Assad's chemical stockpile under international supervision. But
Putin has since convinced Obama to manage the destruction of
Syria's chemical weapons through the U.N. Security Council, where
Moscow possesses the power to veto any future sanctions or military threat
against the regime.
Syria crisis, Lavrov's modus operandi has been to entangle the U.S. in U.N.
procedural issues; he is an absolute master of U.N. procedure," said Richard
Gowan, a U.N. specialist at New York University. "Hillary Rodham Clinton and
Kerry are both very experienced diplomats, but Lavrov has the upper hand in
understanding U.N. rules and procedures. We have seen that play out over the
Geneva agreement and how this is being translated into a relatively soft
Security Council resolution." The Geneva agreement, which was negotiated in
2012 by Lavrov and Clinton, calls for the establishment of a transitional
government in Syria.
"Lavrov's great skill is that he projects gravitas as a man
you can do business with, and I think that probably appeals to Kerry," said
Gowan. "You sense in the Geneva negotiations that perhaps Kerry has been
placing weight on his personal relationship with Lavrov and the ability to
strike a real man-to-man relationship with Lavrov. Lavrov offsets this by
getting back to the rule book. Lavrov is less willing to bend the U.N. rules
The United States, as Obama's national security team has
repeatedly pointed out, has never taken the threat of military action entirely
off the table. But a Russian-American
pact that was struck nearly two weeks ago in Geneva to place Syria's
chemical weapons under international control will considerably raise the
threshold for approving a future strike. "As Sergei
knows, under any circumstances, there would be a debate in the Security Council"
to determine whether sanctions or military force will be permitted, Kerry told a
joint press conference with Lavrov on Sept. 14. "With respect to the
question of the use of force … [our] commander in chief always retains the right
to defend the United States of America and our interests."
The reality, however, is more complicated.
A draft U.N. resolution that was endorsed this afternoon by
the U.N.'s five big powers -- and which is expected to be approved by the full Security
Council in a matter of days -- threatens no automatic penalties against Syria
if it fails to comply with its obligations or even if it launches a fresh
The deal was cinched following Kerry's meeting today with
Lavrov. U.S. officials lauded the agreement as a landmark pact that
strengthens the international effort to halt the use of chemical weapons. Kerry
voiced hope that "this resolution can now give life hopefully to the removal
and destruction of chemical weapons in Syria." If Syria complies, the
arrangement would mark a major diplomatic achievement for Obama and
But if Syria cheats, the president will find himself
constrained from acting. Under the terms of the
resolution, a committee of diplomats and functionaries from the United Nations
and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will determine
whether Syria has violated the terms of the agreement.
The matter would then be taken up by the U.N. Security
Council. In principle, Russia has agreed that in the event of a Syrian
violation, it is prepared to impose measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter
-- a provision that is used to authorize sanctions or the use of military
But it doesn't have to. A provision of a confidential draft
resolution proposed last week by Russia suggests how difficult it may be to
convince Russia to press ahead with any stern measures. First, Russia insisted
that evidence of a violation be "indisputable and proved" and that it must be
of a particular "gravity" to merit the adoption of a new resolution. So far,
according to U.S. and European officials, Russia has disputed
what they believe is indisputable evidence that Assad used chemical weapons
against his own people on Aug. 21. The latest draft has also dropped a
provision calling for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and
prosecute those responsible for using chemical weapons. Instead, it merely states that perpetrators of such an attack should be held accountable
for their crimes.
"By dropping the ICC referral early on, Kerry allowed himself
to get bullied by Russia without putting up much of a fight for Syria's victims
of horrific crimes," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human
Rights Watch. "Any progress to lock away or destroy Syria's chemical weapons
can only be welcomed but should not come at the price of impunity for those
responsible for the gassing of hundreds of children, and so many other grave
Ty McCormick contributed to this article.
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