Western nations and the Arab League dared Russia to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution on violence in Syria -- hours after a new bloodbath in the city of Homs. Moscow did just that.
In a Saturday emergency meeting, filled with recriminations and accusations in the usually-staid Council, the vote was 13-2, with China backing Russia. The two nations usually support each other so one of them does not have to cast a sole veto. (See resolution text)
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said she was "disgusted" by the vetoes that "prop up desperate dictators." French Ambassador Gérard Araud said "history will judge harshly" those who protected the Assad regime. Britain's Mark Lyall Grant said he was "appalled" at the vote and Germany's Peter Wittig called the double veto "a disgrace."
Even Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, supported the resolution as did India and South Africa, which had abstained in October when a similar double veto was cast in the Council on a Syria resolution.
Bad timing for Putin But this was not the week to push Russia's Vladimir Putin, the tough guy, into a corner. He is facing enough demonstrations against his quest for another decade of presidential leadership in an election next month he is expected to win.
Russia is a major weapons supplier to the Syrian government and has its only military base in a Syrian port outside the former Soviet Union. It also fears chaos and an Islamic uprising in the region.
After making numerous compromises, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a security conference in Munich, said the resolution was still unacceptable and took sides in a civil war
But the United States, Europeans and Morocco, the main sponsor of the draft resolution, figured that if they could not bridge the gap, the action in Homs made it imperative they say something. Passage would not have stopped fighting but started political momentum inside and outside Syria and told President Bashar al-Assad he was isolated.
At least 217 people were killed in Homs, Reuters reported, after the shelling began late on Friday and lasted unto dawn on Saturday. Residents said at least 36 houses were completely destroyed with families inside. More than 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising 11 months ago, the United Nations estimated. Coincidence or warning? The Homs onslaught was 30 years to the day when President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president, put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising by razing the city. Deaths vary between 10,000 and 40,000, the New Yorker estimated.
The main sticking point was the Arab League plan that said Assad should relinquish power to a deputy, followed by a dialogue with the opposition and eventual elections. Among Russia's amendments were "taking into account" the Arab proposals rather than "fully" supporting them.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin said "some influential members" were undermining unity and calling for regime change.
And President Obama did just that, although he did not advocate the Council follow or call for any kind of armed intervention. "Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now. He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately," the president said in a statement.
Churkin told reporters that the Arab League's timeline was "artificial" and asked what would happen if one side or another did not comply. "Drop the effort or impose sanctions?" He also wanted violence on both sides to be condemned in equal measure
The resolution was watered down all of last week. Britain's Lyall Grant said assurances were provided in the text against military intervention, against regime change, against an arms embargo, against sanctions.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told the council the killings in Homs were "carried out by terrorist opposition to send you a misleading message in an attempt to influence the vote." He also noted that some Arab nations sponsoring the resolution (Saudi Arabia is one) "prevented women from attending a soccer match" but were preaching democracy to Syria.
After Syrian security forces fired on peaceful demonstrators last March, more and more people took up arms. Some are defectors from the military; others are local people organizing to protect protesters.
What now? Power an aphrodisiac? The onslaught in Homs left Council members baffled and angry. "To block this resolution is to bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Munich.
"How many more dead and maimed will it take to finally force this Council into action?" asked Portugal's U.N. ambassador, José Filipe Moraes Cabral?"
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who also spoke at the Munich conference, said in an e-mail:
"The awful slaughter in Homs as the Security Council deliberates suggests that Assad has given up on Russia continuing to provide diplomatic cover. Russia may use its newly announced visit to Damascus -- to give it one more chance to convince Assad to stop the killing. But Assad's slaughter in Homs suggests he's not interested in talking."
Mohammed Loulichki, the U.N. ambassador of Morocco, expressed "regret and disappointments" and said Arab leaders would not abandon their plan. And British envoy Mark Lyall Grant said there would be a new U.N. push if violence continued.
But unless Lavrov, in his mission to Syria, pulls off a miracle, power is its own aphrodisiac and difficult to relinquish.
Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy believes Assad will continue to try and shoot his way out of the crisis Reforms he promised in the past were not credible.
"The whole situation fits into a larger pattern of Assad saying he will do one thing, but simply does the opposite or does nothing, and Syrians just weren't having any more of it."