Exchanges between the US and Russia behind closed doors Thursday were particularly tense
By comparison to previous action, events late last week at the UN happened at warp speed
The US missile strikes in Syria Thursday night exploded just as the UN Security Council in New York concluded a closed-door debate on Syria so heated one council diplomat said “there was blood on the floor.”
The Security Council – the group of 15 countries charged with protecting international peace and security – has seen only failures in Syria during the six years of war. Russia, backed by China, has vetoed seven different resolutions.
The years of frustration plus the new presence of US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, with a more aggressive approach, contributed to a more heated discussion Thursday night.
The evening before at the Women in the World Summit in Manhattan, Haley smiled and said, “We don’t do soft power.” The UN meeting just two days after the chemical attack was to determine if there could be an international resolution to condemn the Syria gas attack and potentially state demands for Syria to comply with an international investigation.
The exchanges between the US and Russia behind closed doors were particularly tense. One council diplomat described the whole atmosphere as “exceptionally poisonous.”
As Thursday night’s debate began, the rising tensions in and outside of the Council chamber reminded observers of the run-up to the two US-led invasions of Iraq, along with other US quick strikes such as inside Libya in 2011. Those events seemed were preceded by days or weeks of debate and drama at the UN.
By comparison, events late last week at the UN happened at warp speed. Soon after the nations sat down in the private consultations room, Haley announced there would not be a vote on a resolution. A British diplomat tweeted that news leaving media and other diplomats not in the room perplexed. All day, the US had talked openly about the need for a vote to send a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That would be the first tip that the US delegation knew a military option, not diplomacy, had been chosen by the Trump administration. Diplomats speculated that Haley would have liked to have gotten a Russian veto to provide political cover for a missile launch. Not that the Trump administration felt it needed any action from the UN, an organization the US President disdains.
But something unexpected happened inside the room. There were now three different proposed resolutions that would respond to the chemical weapons attack. The US draft would demand more compliance from the Syrians and the Russians were more supportive of the Assad regime.
A third resolution, intended as a compromise of sorts, was submitted by Sweden and nine other non-permanent members of the council that usually let the big permanent nations flex their muscles. Haley was peeved that countries usually supportive of the US were coming up with their own resolution on Syria. That would hamper efforts to highlight Russia’s intransigence.
In explaining the decision to not go to a vote, a US official said Monday looking back, “it just got complicated. When it went from one to three texts it made things more difficult.”
A Security Council diplomat said Haley was quickly dismissive of the new third draft by these member countries who don’t have veto power on the Security Council. The diplomat said Haley’s body language indicated she wasn’t pleased. And Haley remarked, “then there is this Swedish thing!”
The diplomat said its extremely rare to get countries from such widely different political spectrums as Ukraine and Bolivia to come together on a proposed resolution to counter the big powers who weren’t happy that these two-year Council members were now pushing their own Syrian ideas. A council diplomat said the non-permanent members during the meeting said in effect, don’t take us for granted.
But Haley, serving as council president for the month, was in charge. And if the US didn’t want a vote, Russia didn’t either. Moscow, well aware it would not get the required nine votes for even putting its draft, more supportive of Assad, to a formal vote.
There are “bruised feelings’, said one council diplomat that have to hear first before further action. The US official said the “process isn’t dead yet.”
After about two hours of sharp talk Thursday night, the ambassadors filed out of the room. As to why it ended at that exact moment, one UN diplomat said everybody had their say and it was finished. But the timing was hard to ignore. The Deputy Russian Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov was surrounded by UN journalists and asked what the impact would be if the US staged a military attack. He said there would be “negative consequences.”
Minutes before he issued his warning, the US missiles had just made their impact at the Syrian base suspected of delivering the deadly gas attack.