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Is Russia's UN Initiative on Syria a Compromise or a Delay to Action?

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Russia surprised U.N. Security council members by producing a draft resolution critical of the Syrian government in what appears to be an effort to put some distance between Moscow and the increasingly discredited Damascus government.

Or was this a tactical move that will not result in a vote since Europeans and the United States want a stronger measure to highlight the 5,000 people killed in Syria this year? They also want to threaten or impose sanctions but not military intervention.

Some diplomats believe Russia, which supplies Syria with arms and has a naval base there, does not want to be isolated if or when President Bashar al-Assad's government falls. Protestors in Syria are already burning the Russian flag. Others believe the move is a tactic to buy time.

Repeated reports of atrocities and gross human rights violations by the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has found resonance throughout the Arab world.

Equally as important, the Arab League, which has already suspended Syria's membership, may ask the Security Council to impose sanctions, which some of its members have already done. If that happens, the West will put a stronger resolution to a vote and see if Russia and China will use their veto power as they did in October. (Syria was reported by Reuters on Monday to have agreed to the terms it rejected earlier but no one is sure of the precise details).

Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin said not all of the 5,000 dead were peaceful demonstrators and a resolution had to condemn all violence.

His new draft, however, toughens Moscow's stand and refers to a "disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities." It also urges Syria "to put an end to suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association."

And it demands "that all parties in Syria immediately stop any violence" and expresses concern over the "illegal supply of weapons to the armed groups in Syria."

France's U.N. Ambassador Gérard Araud summed up the European view :

We are positively surprised that eventually Russia has decided to move on the resolution project, on the resolution draft. We think that it is because Russia has felt the pressure of the international community especially after the shocking report of Mrs. Pillay. Of course, after eight months of violence now, some demonstrators are shooting back, but we can't simply put them back to back, and say that they are all "acts of violence". The primary responsible of the violence is the behavior of the armed forces, and secondly the refusal of the Syrian regime to engage into a genuine reform.

The Arab League's initiative calls for an immediate cessation of all violence and the withdrawal of the military from the streets; release of political prisoners; accelerated political reform with a specific timeline; serious dialogue with opposition representatives; and a follow-up mechanism including an Arab team of observers.

Children killed
Pillay, the U.N. human rights commissioner, delivered a closed door briefing to the Security Council after a tumultuous discussion in which Churkin insisted she brief on the Palestinians also, something the Council had never asked her to do in the past. (Both British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant and US deputy Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo called it a "red herring.")

In her statement (see text) she updated her August report, prepared by an independent commission, saying 5,000 people had been killed, including 300 children, torture abounded and military defections were increasing. She suggested a referral to the International Criminal Court preceded by a probe organized by the Security Council itself.

Credible information gathered by my staff demonstrates patterns of systematic and widespread use of torture in interrogation and detention by security forces. Extensive reports of sexual violence in places of detention, primarily against men and boys are particularly disturbing.

In response, Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Jaafari castigated Pillay, saying she meddled in the internal affairs of a U.N. member state, relied only on accounts of defectors and "trespassed her mandate." Churkin said Western powers want to topple Assad's government.

But U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said time was up for the Security Council to act:

Through condemnations issued by the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council and bold steps taken by the Arab League and the Government of Turkey, international bodies are starting to match their severe disapproval of Syria's bloody crackdown with concrete steps to bring it to an end. It is past time for the U.N. Security Council to do the same.

Name and Shame
While the European Union and the United States have imposed their own sanctions, Human Rights Watch in an 88-page report, By All Means Necessary! Individual and Command Responsibility for Crimes against Humanity in Syria, has identified 74 commanders and officials responsible for attacks on unarmed protesters. The report names those who allegedly ordered, authorized, or condoned widespread killings, torture, and unlawful arrests during the protests

Now what?
Germany's U.N. ambassador, Peter Wittig, said all decisions of the Arab League should be backed by the Security Council, which should authorize its own investigation and then hold accountable those responsible for abuse.

Despite the months of delay in issuing a strong rebuke, Wittig believes that "A joint, united message by the Council can be very powerful and isn't easily dismissed. That's why we want to overcome the current split of the Council on Syria -- and avoid further bloodshed in Syria."

But nothing is easy. A resolution that would suit all sides is still in doubt, particularly after the Libyan experience. Russia is still smarting from NATO's intervention, although war was approved by the Security Council.

No one so far is calling for military intervention in Syria. Instead it is expected that arms will be smuggled to the opposition, possibly through neighboring Turkey where more than 12,000 Syrians have fled -- unless the Arab League manages to institute a genuine peace.