10/05/2011 08:42 am ET Updated Dec 05, 2011

No More Mr. Nice Guy -- Europeans Force Vote on Syria at UN

Europeans called a vote on a resolution condemning Syria for its bloody crackdown on protestors that elicited vetoes from Russia and China. But in forcing the vote, the West was able to promote "stand-up-and be counted" positions on pro-democracy demonstrations in the Middle East.

The drama was rare in the 15-nation Security Council as was the double-veto that killed the European-sponsored draft resolution after months of negotiating. In the end, the Europeans substantially weakened the measure in hopes of getting unanimous support.

The vote was a defeat for Europeans Britain, France, Germany and Portugal, supported by the United States. But the West also sought to win favor from pro-democracy movements in the Middle East (even if the Council has done little on Yemen or Bahrain, not to mention Iran.)

The vetoes were "a rejection of the extraordinary movement in support of freedom and democracy that is the Arab Spring," France's ambassador, Gerard Araud, said.

And U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, in a tough speech, told the Council:

Those who oppose this resolution and give cover to a brutal regime will have to answer to the Syrian people -- and, indeed, to people across the region who are pursuing the same universal aspirations.

At issue is a nearly seven-month long offensive against protestors that now includes army deserters fleeing to Turkey. The United Nations estimates some 2,700 civilians have been killed in military operations. Some of the protestors are armed and have attacked security forces. Syria says they are gangs and terrorists. Tens of thousands have been jailed over the last decade, regardless of whether they were armed.

How they voted
Nine countries, a majority, voted for the draft resolution: Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Bosnia, Colombia, Gabon, Nigeria and the United States. India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon abstained. (The last time Russia and China, permanent members with veto power, cast a double veto was in July 2008 to defeat sanctions aimed Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.)

The abstentions by India, Brazil and South Africa were particularly interesting as these emerging powers are attempting to carve an independent role for themselves but end up siding with Russia and China.

"This vote erodes their credibility in the global arena and might come to define their tenure in the Security Council and undermine their claim to permanent membership," said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch.

These countries, along with Russia and China, have criticized NATO for overstepping the Security Council's mandate to protect civilians in Libya by pushing for regime change, even though the Council's resolution allowed warfare. But the Syria draft resolution deliberately excluded military action.

What the resolution said
The draft resolution demanded the end of violence in Syria and condemned human rights violations, including arbitrary executions, the excessive use of force and the killing and the persecution of protestors. It called for a political process.

All references to sanctions were removed and the defeated resolution said only that the council would "consider its options" after 30 days. One stumbling point for opponents was the Europeans' refusal to equate violence by authorities with a backlash from demonstrators.

Said British Ambassador Mark Lyle Grant:

We removed the sanctions; still it was unacceptable to the minority. We called on all sides to reject violence and extremism; still it was unacceptable. We removed any sense that sanctions would automatically follow in 30 days if the regime failed to comply; and still it was unacceptable. By including reference to Article 41 of the U.N. Charter we made it clear that any further steps would be non-military in nature; still it was unacceptable.

Russia calls Europeans "confrontational"
But Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, calling France's references to the Arab Spring "cute," said many Syrians did not approve of the demonstrations. He said the Europeans had devised a "confrontational" approach that would not settle the crisis peacefully.

And he said the resolution, if adopted, could have opened the door to military intervention. But Rice called that a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people." In comments to reporters, Churkin denied the accusation, saying Russia had suffered economic losses elsewhere by adhering to arms embargoes.

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari prompted a walkout by Rice and the American delegation when he accused Israel of genocide. After the vote he told reporters the British, French and American governments were shedding crocodile tears for the Syrian people, ignored and abused during colonial times.

And Washington, in invading Iraq, had sent 2 million refugees into Syria without helping to pay the costs the intervention had caused, the ambassador said. "Germany, the third musketeer, persecuted the Jews in Europe (and) is now trying to show itself as an honest broker... They forget the suffering of the Syrian people for decades."

Tuesday's proceedings showed divisions among Council members severe enough to be uttered in an open session. They also pointed to a future deadlock on Middle East issues as well as human rights violations elsewhere in the world.