5 and Counting: Russia Vetoes No-Fly-Zone in the Security Council

Over the weekend, Russia exercised its veto—again and unsurprisingly—to block a draft Security Council resolution (S/2016/846) that would have created a no-fly-zone over the besieged city of Aleppo.  This is the fifth time Russia—which now holds the presidency of the Council—has used its veto to block action on Syria before the Council.  Venezuela joined Russia in voting against the draft resolution; China and Angola abstained.

France and Spain had sponsored the resolution, which would have banned airstrikes in, and all military flights over, Aleppo, including those involving Russian warplanes. It would also have provided for humanitarian aid deliveries to rebel-held eastern Aleppo and established a mechanism to monitor a ceasefire with experts from the International Syrian Support Group.

After days of negotiations on the French-Spanish resolution, Russia tabled on Friday a competing resolution (S/2016/847) that would have established a ceasefire but not a no-fly-zone.  The Russian resolution did not benefit from multilateral negotiations before it was put to a vote, which raised procedural objections among some delegations. The Russian resolution garnered only four votes (including from China) in its favor. (In order for a resolution to pass, nine votes are necessary plus no veto by one of the permanent 5 members of the Council).

The votes happened on Saturday during a closed door emergency meeting on Syria.  Delegates exchanged fiery rhetoric, with several speakers addressing the Russian U.N. Ambassador directly (the proceedings can be viewed here).  When the Syrian representative began speaking after the votes, the United Kingdom, France, Ukraine, and the United States delegations walked out of the chamber.

The debate followed a briefing by the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, who warned that Aleppo may be totally destroyed by the end of the year if no ceasefire is achieved.  A sticking point in the Council has been the presence of 1000 or so Al Nusrah front fighters embattled in Eastern Aleppo; in his remarks, Mistura offered to personally escort these fighters out of Aleppo in order to bring about a cessation of hostilities. Russia had suggested that their removal was a “precondition” to any ceasefire.

Russia is clearly in it for the long haul. Russia and Syria recently ratified a bilateral treaty allowing Russian troops to remain indefinitely in Syria.  Russia has stationed forces and air defense missile systems, containing S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles, at the Hemeimeem/Khmeimim air base in Latakia; Russia also maintains a naval base in the Tartus port. Earlier, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman indicated that these defense systems would “surprise” any country operating aircraft over Syria.

The veto triggered impassioned interventions by other permanent members of the Security Council.

France

  • France spoke of working hard to achieve a resolution that would enable the Council to reach a consensus.
  • The international community is witnessing the destruction of Aleppo, a 1000-year old city whose residents are on the verge of being “abandoned to their executioners.” Aleppo is a repeat of the horrors of Guernica, Srebrenica, and Grozny (a pointed reference to the 1999-2000 siege of the Chechen capital by Russian forces).
  • The Syrian regime is not combatting terrorism, as it claims; rather, the goal is the capitulation of Aleppo. By targeting civilians, Bashar al Assad and his accomplices are actually fueling terrorism.
  • The situation calls for unimpeded humanitarian aid and unity around the goal of combating terrorism. France calls for the urgent resumption of negotiations with a view towards effectuating a transition.
  • The international community must reject any preconditions to end the bombings; the ceasefire is the only precondition for future action.
  • Those who target civilians and use chemical weapons, including the accomplices of a worn-out regime, must be held accountable.

United States (delivered by Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, David Pressman):

  • The resolution vetoed by Russia had a simple demand and one goal: stop the bombing in Aleppo.
  • Aleppo is undergoing a terrifying military offensive. Air strikes, bunker bombs, and incendiary weapons have destroyed whatever infrastructure was left for civilians, including hospitals, water pumps, and bases for first responders. Hospitals have been struck not once, but twice.  This is the deadliest campaign of aerial bombardment since 2011.  “One does not have to be an international legal scholar to know that there is a term to describe these acts: war crimes.”
  • Russia’s veto has only strengthened Assad at the expense of over 275,000 Syrians.
  • Today was time for the Council to act. Perversely, the current President of the Security Council is intent on allowing the killing to continue and is, indeed, participating in it.
  • He warned that Russia is using counterterrorism as an excuse to help Bashar al-Assad retake Aleppo by brutal force. In fact, Russia has become a chief purveyor of terrorism in Aleppo, “using tactics associated with thugs rather than governments.” The world will not look the other way just because they invoke the word “counterterrorism.”
  • To be sure, there are terrorists in Syria, which is why the United States leads a 67-member coalition against terrorist groups. Opposition groups should separate themselves from the Al Nusrah Front and other terrorist groups. The United States will be relentless in its fight against terrorism.
  • The United States spent months trying to work with Russia on a campaign to focus on Al Nusrah and other terrorist targets. In return, the United States asked Russia to work though the Council in good faith; instead, Russia decided to walk away and ignore the Council’s repeated calls to support the ceasefire.
  • The Russian text is little more than a deceptive attempt to get the Security Council to ratify what Russia and the regime are doing in Aleppo. Russia wants more talk to give it time to take the city by brutal force. “We want them to stop the slaughter.”  It is time for Russia to stop starving and killing Aleppo’s children.

United Kingdom

  • The U.K. delegate refused to thank Russia as the President of the Council when he took the floor.
  • Russia has prevented the Council achieving unity; it has denigrated the credibility of the Council in the eyes of the world. Russia’s actions are a cynical abuse of the privileges and responsibilities of permanent membership in the Council.
  • Russia’s actions have shown just how hollow Russia’s commitment to diplomacy and the political process are given that it has supported, facilitated, and cooperated with the Syrian regime, which is using barrel bombs, cluster munitions, chemical weapons, and incendiary weapons.
  • The French/Spanish resolution was not unreasonable; rather, it called for sensible and overdue steps. There can be no military justification for indiscriminate aerial attacks on homes and hospitals. It is despicable that the regime blocks full and unhindered humanitarian access and that the safety of aid convoys cannot be assured in light of Russia’s apparent targeting of food relief in late September.
  • There can be no military victory in Aleppo. We need Council unity to end this war; this will only come with Russia stops its aerial bombardment.
  • The United Kingdom drew attention to the failure of the Russian resolution, which garnered only “a lonely veto and then just 4 votes in favor of [the] text—a double humiliation.” He called the draft resolution “a cynical attempt to divert attention from the veto that denied hope to the people of Aleppo.”
  • He ended with a plea, directed at the Russian representative: “Please stop now.”

Ukraine

  • Ukraine excoriated Russia for failing to live up to its responsibilities.
  • It invoked a long-standing, but ultimately still unsuccessful, initiative in the General Assembly to encourage the Security Council to pledge to refrain from using the veto in the cases of atrocities when there is a “credible draft resolution” that seeks to end or prevent genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity as determined by the Secretary-General. So far, 104 countries—including France and Great Britain—have expressed support for the proposed “code of conduct”. The campaign was originally launched by the Small 5 (Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland) and has been taken up by a group of countries calling themselves the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group, led by Liechtenstein.

Russia (Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin)

  • Russia accused the United States and the United Kingdom of engaging in “provocation rhetoric” and indicated a refusal to react to it.
  • In response to the United Kingdom’s statement that it should “stop now,” Russia called on the United Kingdom to stop intervening in the internal affair of sovereign states and “stop [its] colonial habits.”
  • Russia agrees with the United States that more action is needed. But the United States can’t separate moderate rebels from terrorists.
  • The representative defended his draft text, admitting it was “a political demonstration” and an attempt to retain the multilateral framework.
  • As it seemed clear that neither resolution would garner the necessary votes, the representative described the meeting as a “waste of time” and “one of the strangest spectacles” ever in the Council.

  

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).