The Cable

Olympic Gain: With Sochi Winding Down, Russia Signs Off On U.N. Syria Resolution

Russia avoided a potentially embarrassing diplomatic bust-up on the eve of the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, casting its support behind a U.S.-backed United Nations Security Council resolution designed to compel the Syrian government, as well as armed opposition groups, to allow in needed humanitarian aid and immediately lift the siege of several Syrian towns.

But the adoption of the U.N. resolution by a vote of 15-0 was hardly a sign that Washington and Moscow are reading from the same page on Syria or on the other politically contentious issues that continue to dog relations between the onetime Cold War rivals.

While the resolution threatens Syria and other armed groups with unspecified "further steps" for failing to implement the resolution, Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, made it clear to the council that his government was not prepared to automatically penalize Syria if it fails to move quickly to end its siege of Homs, Aleppo and other battered cities where more than 200,000 people have been cut off from food and medicine deliveries, some for more than a year.

His remarks signaled that the U.S. and its allies are likely to face an uphill battle to address any foot-dragging by Syria. In September, the Security Council threatened to impose sanctions on Syria if it failed to comply with the terms of a U.S.-Russian brokered deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons. But Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, imposed a nearly insurmountable hurdle on action, saying that Moscow would require "100% proof" that Syria had violated the terms. Five months later, the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has turned over barely 5 percent of its chemical stockpiles and the American ship tasked for their destruction has docked in Spain indefinitely. Despite the delay, there seems to be little chance that Assad will be punished for dithering over the agreement.

Russia's ability to slow the diplomatic wrangling over Syria and prevent the Security Council to take meaningful action has actually served to significantly strengthen Assad's position. The Syrian leader had been losing ground on the battlefield for well over a year. But as Damascus's military position improved the White House ruled out the sorts of airstrikes that might have given the rebels a decisive edge and has shied away from giving the opposition fighters more advanced weaponry. Outgunned, the rebels have been steadily losing control of much of the terrain they'd conquered.

Politically, meanwhile, the chemical weapons deal has boosted Assad's standing considerably because Western governments know the agreement can only work if Assad retains power long enough to disclose the locations of all of his weapons and ensure they can be safely removed from the country. On February 4, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said "the prospects are right now that [Assad] is actually in a strengthened position that when we discussed this last year by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been."

Moscow has protected Assad, but the government of President Vladimir Putin has had far less success in neighboring Ukraine, a vital ally whose pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, was pushed out of power Saturday after weeks of increasingly bloody street protests.

Yanukovych denounced his removal by the country's parliament as a "coup d'etat," and his loyalists in the largely Russian speaking eastern part of the country vowed to challenge the move on legal grounds. Lavrov, meanwhile, said the Ukrainian parliament had violated the February 21 political agreement, brokered by Germany, France and Poland, that called on the Ukrainian leader to cede some powers and pave the way for early presidential elections in May. In a Russian foreign ministry statement quoted by Itar-Tass news agency, Lavrov said he had informed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the pact had been "sharply degraded by opposition forces' inability or lack of desire" to honor it.

"It's time to stop misleading the international public opinion and pretending that the Maidan represents the interests of the Ukrainian nation," he said. "The opposition not only has failed to fulfill a single one of its obligations but is already presenting new demands all the time, following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine's sovereignty and constitutional order."

Russian bluster aside, the hundreds of thousands of jubilant protesters who flooded downtown Kiev to celebrate Yanukovych's departure and cheer for the formerly jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko made it clear that there was virtually nothing Moscow could do -- short of an armed intervention -- to bring its ally back into power. If anything, Ukraine's next government is virtually certain to distance itself from Moscow in favor of closer ties with the European Union and the United States.

The future impact of Saturday's Syrian resolution, by contrast, remains murky. The agreement was largely hailed by world leaders, U.N. delegates and human rights activists as an important, but decidedly modest, breakthrough. "This could be a hinge point in the tortured three years of a Syria crisis bereft of hope," said Secretary of State John Kerry. "Ths overdue resolution, if fully implemented, will ensure humanitarian aid reaches people in Syria whose lives depend on it."

Najib Ghadbian, the U.S.based representative of the Syrian National Coalition, a prominent opposition group, welcomed the vote as a "necessary first step" but expressed skepticism that Syria would comply. The Security Council, he said in a statement, must be prepared to "compel" the government to meet its obligations. "Failing that, we urge responsible nations to work with humanitarian agencies to deliver aid directly across Syria's borders without the consent of the regime," he said.

Syrian envoy Bashar al-Jaafari, meanwhile, denied that his government was responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, telling the Security Council that his government had complied with previous U.N. requests to provide U.N. relief workers access to needy civilians. Instead, he accused armed terrorists of using "civilians as humanitarian hostages and human shields in order to prevent the Syrian security forces from moving against the terrorists."

Saturday's vote followed months of grueling on-and-off diplomatic negotiations over the passage of the first U.N. Security Council resolution dealing specifically with Syria's humanitarian crisis. It came only after the United States and other Western powers agreed to water down the language of an earlier draft that explicitly warned that Syria could face sanctions if it failed to comply with the terms of the resolution.

"It remains to be seen whether our action today will have the beneficial results we intend," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council. "Given its track record to date, the Syrian regime can be trusted only to deny what it has done and lie about what it will do."

The United States, Britain, France and other key sponsors of the resolution had timed the vote to coincide with the Sochi Winter Olympics, gambling that Russia, which had already vetoed three resolutions on Syria, wouldn't dare to block a resolution that was aimed at delivering humanitarian assistance to starving civilians. At least for now, the bet seems to have paid off.

The resolution -- which was initially drafted by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan -- strongly condemns human rights violations on both sides of the conflict, and demands that combatants immediately halt "indiscriminate" attacks against civilians, including the shelling and aerial bombardment of populated areas. It singles out the use of barrel bombs. China, which had joined Russia in vetoing three previous resolutions on Syria, also voted in favor of today's resolution.

In perhaps the most controversial provision, the resolution demands that all parties, but in particular the Syrian government, "promptly allow rapid safe and unhindered access" for aid workers to distressed civilians in rebel-controlled areas of the country. It also demands that Damascus allow aid to flow in from neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and to allow shipments to move across conflict zones.

The Syrian government has imposed a wide range of bureaucratic hurdles to delivering aid. After the vote, Jaafari, the Syrian U.N. envoy, raised concerns that aid shipments crossing the border from Turkey and other neighboring countries into rebel-controlled areas could be used to smuggle arms to extremists.

The resolution also calls on the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to brief the council every 30 days on whether its terms were being honored, ensuring that the council will remain focused on Syria's humanitarian crisis even if Russia doesn't allow it to take more meaningful steps to alleviate the suffering.

The U.N. chief, who has been widely criticized for his handling of the crisis, expressed strong frustration that the council action had even been required. "This resolution should not have been necessary," he said. "Humanitarian assistance is not something to be negotiated; it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law."

Mario Tama/ Getty Images

The Cable

Washington Do-Gooders Love ‘House of Cards'

If there's one criticism that's stuck to the hit Netflix series House of Cards, it's that its depiction of Washington nihilism and psychopathy goes beyond reality. The cast of characters in the dark political drama, now in its second season, exude a toxic mix of venality and egotism that is startling even by D.C. standards. The show's absence of noble reformers and righteous idealists such as a President Jeb Bartlet won it the moniker "the anti-West Wing." But many of Washington's real-life starry-eyed reformers don't hold it against the show for leaving them out of lead roles: They love the series. 

"I binge-watched it the weekend of President's Day," said Greg Jacob, a former marine and policy director of Service Women's Action Network, a group that advocates on behalf of victims of sexual assault in the military.

Jacob, like other reformers in the worlds of campaign finance, the military and education, had a reason to watch the show: Baked into its plot are issues he cares deeply about. (Reader warning: Major spoilers ahead). Among numerous subplots in the show is an effort to reform the military justice system by Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the wife of protagonist and Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Like real-life battles to create civilian oversight in the military justice system, the reform effort faced stiff pushback from military and congressional leaders at the outset.

One scene depicts Claire and the First Lady meeting with representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the problem of sexual assault in the military, only to be rebuffed with assurances that the current system is working.

"That's the same response we used to get from the DOD," said Jacob. "They took this very defensive tone. ‘Why are you bringing this up? We have this under control.'"  But even though in fictional Washington Jacob's side loses, and loses badly, he couldn't help but be enthralled by the story arc. "It was riveting," he said.

Jacob wasn't the only one experiencing deja vu. In a press release this week, New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter trumpeted the fact that the scene with the First and Second Ladies alludes to her work on military sexual assault reform. In the fictional meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Claire points to a problematic military brochure advising victims that "it may be advisable to submit than to resist." In real life, Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel complaining about the Air Force brochure (pictured here) that advised victims to submit to sexual assault. The service pulled the brochure last June; the Pentagon also agreed to conduct a review of all sexual assult materials that the military distributes.

Ultimately, the the fictional legislation is gutted in order to pave the way for the vice president's ruthless rise to the presidency. It was a defeat perhaps more unsavory than the real-life setback faced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) when her amendment to remove the prosecution of rape from the military chain of command was dropped from the defense authorization act in December. (Gillibrand is trying to advance a stand-alone bill in its stead). 

But military sexual assault wasn't the only subplot that enraptured passionate reformers. The show's slow-brewing campaign finance scandal provided grist for observers of the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 Citizens United decision, which gave birth to the political fundraising vehicles known as Super PACs.

"I actually marathoned all the episodes last weekend," said David Earley, a campaign finance expert at NYU's School of Law.

To the delight of campaign finance experts, House of Cards taps into the timely issue of foreigners exploiting Super PACs to influence U.S. elections. In the series, foreign contributions from China are laundered through a casino that uses gambling money to conceal  the origins of the donations. That money, estimated in the show to be around $25 million, goes to an influential Super PAC that ends up working against Frank and his Democratic allies.

"Putting aside the often absurd yet entertaining plot of the show generally, the campaign finance events portrayed in the show could actually happen in real life," said Earley. It's unlikely that there's ever been a TV drama that deals with Super PACs in this much detail -- a fact not lost on viewers familiar with the esoteric issue.

"The scheme utilized in the show would be nearly impossible without Citizens United," Earley said. The 2010 Supreme Court case led to a later D.C. Circuit decision, which removed contribution limits for what would become super PACs. As a result, a foreign national could anonymously funnel the $25 million into a federal election through the use of shell corporations and Super PACs, Earley says. The scheme was always illegal, but it became easier to execute after Citizens United. 

That's not to say the show had every detail of the scheme exactly right. One case: during an Oval Office meeting, a character says that money has been funneled to Super PACs since 2005. "This is technically wrong," said Earley. "Super PACs only arose after Citizens United and SpeechNow [the D.C. Circuit case] were decided in 2010 -- there was no such thing as a super PAC in 2005."

By and large, reformers who spoke to The Cable were willing to overlook the technical flaws of the show given the overall ambition of the script. It seems that by highlighting the filth of Washington, House of Cards found allies in those most interested in cleaning it up, which makes sense in a way. If awareness is the first step of reform, House of Cards represents a blaring siren of malfeasance.