Russia called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Friday, a day after the United States launched a missile attack in Syria. But Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Vladimir Safronkov, faced a tough response from the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who castigated the Russians for supporting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. She also warned that more military action had not been ruled out by President Donald Trump.
“Assad did this because he thought he could get away with it,” Haley said to a packed, tense Council. “He thought he could get away with it because he knew Russia had his back. That changed last night.”
The US had tried for days to have a resolution adopted condemning the airborne bombing and gassing by the Assad government of hundreds of Syrian civilians, including dozens of children, in the town of Khan Shaykhun in western Syria’s Idlib Province on April 4. Russia has vetoed seven resolutions, with China, when the US and its allies on the Council sought in the past to condemn Assad’s actions against his own people. The latest resolution would have been vetoed as well, given that Russia presented its own resolution.
The 10 elected members of the Council ushered their own version into the mix, too, meant to be a compromise between the other two. None of the resolutions were voted on, as the American missile attacks superseded events — for now.
The World Health Organization in Geneva said on April 7 that 84 people had been killed in the chemical weapons attack so far and another 546 were perilously sickened. Turkish experts have identified from autopsies the source of the attack as sarin, a banned nerve agent that cripples the lungs, causing an excruciating death by suffocation. It also damages the eyes and contaminates food and water. Sarin, created by the Nazis in 1938, was among the chemical agents banned in Syria and ordered removed from the country under a disarmament agreement negotiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, after a sarin attack in 2013 in a suburb of Damascus, Syria’s capital.
American officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have accused Russia of being either “complicit or incompetent” in apparently allowing sarin to remain in Syria after all banned chemical weapons were supposed to have been removed. Russia shares an air base from which the bombing raids were found to have been launched. The portion of that base used by the Syrians was the target of the April 6 missile attack by the US.
On Friday, the Security Council heard a briefing from the UN’s under secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, an American, who said that the Syrian people needed to be protected and helped to find a political solution for a civil war that began in 2011. The war, between the Syrian government and a variety of rebel groups including ISIS, has left an estimated 400,000 people dead and millions displaced.
The Trump administration has attempted, so far without legal success, to ban Syrian refugees from entering the US.
Echoing a statement from UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Friday, Feltman emphasized, however, that action to save the Syrian people should be “rooted in the principle of international law.” UN officials hew to the belief that the Security Council should back military action. In this case, the US and its allies on the Council could say that they had exhausted that route to resolution because of Russian and Chinese vetoes.
Ambassadors from Britain and France, also permanent members of the Council, strongly supported the US resolution and condemnation of Assad. Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador, said his government backed the American airstrikes “because war crimes have consequences, and the greatest war criminal of all, Bashar al-Assad, has now been put on notice.”
“Russia has given Assad everything he could dream of,” Rycroft added. “Without Russia’s seven vetoes in the Security Council, defying the views of other members of this Council, Assad would now have faced sanctions and justice. . . . Russia sits here today humiliated by its failure to bring to heel a puppet dictator, entirely propped up by Russia itself and Hezbollah and Iran.”
François Delattre, the French ambassador, took a more conciliatory approach, noting to reporters before the session: “We hope the recent developments can be a game changer and help boost the political negotiations in Syria. This is the key, and this is our priority.”
But Russia took the offensive in the Council. “We strongly condemn the illegitimate action by the US,” Safronkov said, staring at Haley. “The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious.” Russia has not yet replaced its longtime ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who died suddenly in New York in February. A Russian diplomat said that such a decision by Moscow takes a while to make.
As an elected member of the Council, Bolivia joined Russia, a permanent member, in calling for Friday’s meeting, saying that an “independent investigation” was needed. Bolivia apparently asked that the Council discussion be held behind closed doors. Haley, obviously miffed, curtly denied the request.
“This morning, Bolivia requested an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss events in Syria,” she said in a statement before the session. “It asked for the discussion to be held in closed session. The United States, as president of the Council this month, decided the session would be held in the open. Any country that chooses to defend the atrocities of the Syrian regime will have to do so in full public view.”
Sacha Sergio Llorentty Solíz, the Bolivian ambassador, brushed off that version of events. In the Council, his voice rising, he held up the UN Charter and excoriated the US for taking “unilateral” action in Syria the day before, just as the Council was striving to work as a unit to pass a resolution calling on an examination of the chemical weapons attack.
“Unilateral actions violate international law,” Solíz said, as Haley refused to look at him during his entire speech.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.