02/01/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

Navigating Arabs' Syria Roadmap Through the U.N.

Any time that foreign ministers flock en masse to New York for a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the best political theater in town is sure to play out, eight blocks east of Broadway.

By the kabuki protocols of U.N. debate, Tuesday's globally-televised council debate on Syria counted as gripping drama -- not quite up to par with the electrifying debates on the Bush administration's planned invasion of Iraq in early 2003, but still a revealing moment. Not surprisingly, the Syrian representative invoked the memory of Iraq. But it is Qaddafi's ghost that now hangs over his country's Shakespearian tragedy.

Decoders of diplo-speak tallied the numbers when the "debate" had ended: the Western-backed Arab League resolution calling for president Bashar al-Assad to step aside now musters nine votes among the council's fifteen members.

Nine votes are enough to adopt a resolution, if the six skeptics simply abstain. The council's most important Libya resolutions -- imposing sanctions over the Lockerbie bombing in 1992 and authorizing air protection for civilians in the fighting in 2011 -- both passed with five abstentions, including those of China and India.

But this time around, Russia and China will not be passive bystanders. They are ready to use their vetoes to block any council resolution calling for regime change.

Pakistan and Azerbaijan -- the council's two non-Arab Muslim members -- insist they want a "consensus" resolution that all members will support. Translation: the objections articulated by the Russians and Chinese must be met. India agrees. So does South Africa, which had voted for last year's Libya resolution and then felt brushed aside.

And China and Russia were quite clear about their red lines. No call for regime change and no council demand for a head of state's abdication. No hint of sanctions or military action.

The Western strategy of seeking to press Russia to acquiesce in a stronger Security Council demand on Damascus assumes that Russia does not wish to stand alone in vetoing action as the death toll mounts in Syria. But the United States itself has not hesitated to stand alone in vetoing council resolutions on Israeli settlements or fighting in Gaza when all fourteen other members were united. On Syria, the Russians count a third of the council in their corner.

So, like a filibuster-strangled United States Senate, the Security Council is only going to move as far as its most cautious major member can go. At this stage, that means an endorsement of the Arab League's initiative in facilitating the Syrian political groupings' agreement on the country's political reconstruction. But it also means gutting the Arab League's very specific call for Assad to step aside.

Perhaps revealingly, leaders of the Syrian opposition acknowledge they do not expect Assad would heed a Security Council demand to step down, regardless. It is this that feeds suspicions of council skeptics that council endorsement of that specific recommendation from the Arab League is intended to give outsiders a legal pretext for coercive steps to achieve compliance.

And while Hillary Clinton might dismiss a "false analogy" with Libya and France's Alain Juppé deride the "myth" of secret schemes to intervene, the skeptics think council history since Kosovo and Iraq warrant their suspicion.

Still, the abstract fears in distant foreign ministries pale next to the immediate terrors enveloping Syrians as the tide of political violence engulfs their country. The Arab League leaders underscored the realities their monitoring team found in Syria, described by League chairman Hamad al-Thani, the Qatari prime minister, as "the government's killing machine" operating behind its continued "stalling" and "prevarications." He cited the U.N. Human Rights Council's repeated condemnations of the Damascus security forces' deadly abuses as further evidence.

And for all the Russians' insistence that the violence is as much the work of rebels armed from abroad as of the government's security forces, they too realize that their longtime ally in Damascus can no longer secure control over his country. They need to find their own soft landing to ensure their entire investment in Syria is not lost in the post-Assad political order the way the Americans lost their entire investment in Iran by clinging to the Shah's dictatorship to the bitter end.

Hence the Russians' readiness to support an endorsement of the Arab League's initiative -- despite the Assad regime's antipathy -- so long as it does not demand Assad's removal. Perhaps they would support a referral of the pervasive killings to the International Criminal Court, which would put another layer of pressure on Damascus to rein in its security forces. They would certainly want the council explicitly to bar any foreign military involvement in Syria.

There should be, then, enough common ground for council unanimity on an interim measure that gives further international recognition to the emerging political forces that are challenging Syria's sclerotic regime. Russia itself has the biggest stake in a successful transition.