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This Syria Resolution Is As Good As It Gets

And we won't get another one

Stan Honda/Getty

On Friday night, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted into being a resolution they floated 24 hours earlier to great acclaim. The resolution, number 2118, was hammered out over the last two weeks by the Russians and the Americans, and is supposed to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control and, ultimately, to destroy them. 

In Washington, the resolution, even when it first surfaced, was praised for the brilliance of its nuance. “This resolution breaks new ground,” U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power told a press scrum after the negotiations had ended. “The Security Council is establishing a new international norm.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice called it “a strong, binding and enforceable UNSC resolution.” A U.S. official told me it was “a breakthrough.” On Friday afternoon, President Obama called it “a major diplomatic breakthrough.” (Think Progress national security blogger Hayes Brown went so far as to tweet that it was “some next level genius stuff.”)

That is a political sell, of course, as well as a testament to how bad things had gotten on the Syrian question before 2118 arrived. Talk to anyone else, and the praise is far, far fainter. “It was the compromise version,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It was predictable in the best way it could be,” said Cliff Kupchan, director for Eurasia and the Middle East for the Eurasia Group. “We’re very clear-eyed about this,” the U.S. official admitted.

This resolution is in fact a compromise, and, as such, it is a half-measure--even if, this day in age, half-measures are themselves quite the victory.

So what, exactly, does this resolution do and not do? Who wins, and who only sort of does?

On one hand, Resolution 2118 mentions Chapter VII, the part of the U.N. charter that can punish with economic sanctions or use of force—which is a concession to the Americans, who wanted something with teeth—but, on the other hand, is not a Chapter VII resolution—a concession to the Russians, who wanted mostly gums.

On one hand, it uses the kind of language a Chapter VII resolution uses—“shall” and “will” rather than “call on” or “encourage”—but, on the other hand, that mention of Chapter VII, the thing that stipulates punishment for infractions, does not come until a short clause at the end, a sort of coda.

On one hand, the resolution is supposed to be “legally binding,” but, on the other hand, it contains no specific consequences should Assad not do all the things the resolution says he has to do with his chemical weapon. So instead of including automatic triggers—“if this, then this”—Resolution 2118 simply says that penalties for Syrian non-compliance will be Chapter VII-type penalties, like economic sanctions or the use of force (a concession to the Americans). However, that is all it says. There are no specifics and no penalties outlined. This means that, should there be an infraction, the Security Council will again convene to determine what to do. This is a concession to the Russians, who have used their Security Council veto to protect Assad from the West. Given that the Russians are still muddying the waters and refusing to assign blame for the August 21 chemical attacks, how likely is it that they would vote for economic sanctions or use of force against Assad? “Russia will never vote for it,” says Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow and a noted scholar of Russian foreign policy. 

This was part of the compromise. From the beginning, Russia ruled out a Chapter VII resolution, while the U.S. pushed for something that would be binding and enforceable. As a result we have this strange, narrow document that, on one hand, delineates with great specificity how and when Assad shall part with his chemical weapons, yet has its teeth surgically removed and set aside for use at a later time, like a pair of dentures on the nightstand.

The compromise, however, allows all sides, including Assad’s, to walk away with a win. 

The Americans can say that they have enforced their red line against chemical weapons and have done so without using force or doing so unilaterally. (“Putin understands that Obama doesn’t want to use force is Syria, but feels obligated to do so,” says Lukyanov. “This resolution gives the Americans the chance to step away from a war they didn’t want to fight.”) It also saves them from being seen as the country that continues to gut the United Nations.

The Russians can also say that they have upheld international norms protecting national sovereignty and insuring against unilateral military action. And whereas American policy on Syria has been mercurial and ever-changing, the Russians’ goal has been steadfast for the entire duration of the Syrian civil war: blocking American military intervention. This resolution, because it tables the use of force and kicks that can down the road, allows them to do that.

Most important, the Russians emerge from this latest scuffle as the world’s master diplomats and, finally, as America’s geopolitical equals. This has been a major Russian goal—and a major reason for its zealous use of the Security Council veto—for the last decade: restoring Russia as a powerful global dealmaker. “Russia is not a vegetarian country,” says Trenin. “It is not against the use of force. It just wants the use of force to happen with Russia’s approval. Putin wants these things done on an equal footing, not that he’s just helping America pursue its own agenda and getting commission for it.” Reserving the right to veto any future consequences for Assad’s potential violations of Resolution 2118 allows Russia to maintain this equal footing.

Moreover, Trenin adds, for Russia, this has never been a fight about Assad (who was not the friend of Moscow that his father was) or even about Syria. “Syria is not the main point,” Trenin says. “Syria is where the new world order is being sorted out.” Because this resolution has been born of Putin’s plan—in Moscow, Sergey Lavrov is just seen as doing Putin’s bidding—“it raises Putin to a very high and very serious level.” Kupchan, a veteran and keen observer of Russia who was just in Moscow for the Valdai club discussions (Putin’s pet conference), was impressed by this as well. “I was very struck by how much Putin and Lavrov were putting the prestige of Russia on the line with this,” he said.

Assad also wins in all of this, precisely because Russia is seems committed to making this plan work and therefore making Assad get rid of his weapons. If Assad complies and turns over his chemical weapons to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (the body charged by the resolution to determine the mechanics of the purge), the Americans don’t strike Syria and Assad can stay in power and continue fighting the war. Both of these are a win for Russia, too. “Putin wants Assad to stay and keep fighting  what he sees as his own worst enemies: al-Qaida affiliated extremists,” says Trenin, adding that this is one of the ways the younger Assad became a Russian ally over the course of the war. “The fact that there are several hundred Russian citizens”—Muslim insurgents from Russia’s violent North Caucasus region—“makes this even more urgent for Putin.” As long as Assad complies with Resolution 2118, in other words, he takes away the need for American intervention. And as long as he does that, he can and should keep fighting to crush the rebels. 

That said, there is a consensus that Assad will probably stash some chemical weapons for a rainy day. “It is very unlikely that he’ll get rid of all of them,” says Kupchan. “But what would a strike have taken out? Five percent? Ten percent?” Even then, it is unlikely that he would use them unless things got really dire. It is even more unlikely that the U.S. could do anything about that or even about a secret stash. Why? Because Resolution 2118 requires that any consequences for such secret stashes be determined by the Security Council, and Russia will never vote for it. (Instead, according to Trenin, if Syria is found to be in violation of the treaty’s terms, “Russia will lean really hard on Assad, telling him that if he doesn’t fulfill his obligations, the U.S. will attack and we won’t be able to do anything about it.”) When the Security Council inevitably doesn’t approve the punishment, given the painfully fraught drama we went through at home over military intervention in Syria, it is deeply unlikely that Obama would decide to act on his own. And that means that all Assad has to do is make a convincing show of compliance and he’s off the hook.

The losers in this deal are painfully obvious. Obama, whose Syria policy is hugely driven by domestic politics, and Putin win because they were able to tease out the use of chemical weapons from larger context of the bloody Syrian civil war, which this resolution completely ignores. “Of course we welcome efforts to lock away Syria’s chemical weapons; it’s definitely essential to address this,” says Philippe Bolopion, the who represents Human Rights Watch at the U.N. “But the resolution does not address the reality that conventional weapons have killed the vast majority of people in this conflict.” He also takes issue that the red line was drawn for chemical weapons in this conflict. “What about the incendiary bombs being dropped on schools? What about the Scud missiles leveling whole neighborhoods? These are not pretty weapons either.”

After the unanimous vote on Friday night, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon delivered a speech praising Resolution 2118 for breaking the deadlock. It has. Its esoteric compromise has also delivered massive political wins to Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Bashar al-Assad. He praised the effort that would lead to Syria destroying its chemical weapons program. “A red light for one type of weapon is not a green light for others,” he warned. Except that this is exactly what Resolution 2118 does.