In a week of reversals, semireversals and blatant backtracking by some of the most powerful countries on earth, diplomacy showed its head-spinning underside in the United Nations Security Council, as three Western allies — Britain, France and the United States — conveyed their outrage against Russia for its perceived role in allowing the Syrian government to unleash fatal chemical weapons on its own people. Russia reacted in kind against the Westerners, spreading invective all around.
The drama began on Monday, April 9, as the Council responded to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma on the previous weekend, in which dozens of people were reported killed and many more were wounded. (Tallies vary from 40 to 85 dead.) The insults hurled toward Russia and from Russia to the US and its allies lasted all week in Council “emergency” sessions on the topic. The lashing-out culminated on Friday, as threats by America to launch an armed assault on Syria boiled on Monday but simmered down with each passing day.
After the early-in-the-week tweeting of “bellicose rhetoric” from Donald Trump, as the Russian ambassador to the UN put it, the Council met almost daily to find a diplomatic route, however narrow, to confront the alleged use of chemical weapons, a violation of international law and a war crime, as France said.
Trump’s tweets on Sunday stoked the hysteria for the week, as he warned that there would be a “big price to pay” for the use of toxins in Douma. Days later, after it was clear he had “tipped his hand,” as Susan Rice, the former US secretary of state said, he tweeted that a military strike “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” [In the late evening of April 13, the US announced its intentions to launch missiles into Syria.]
Amid the backdrop of a looming aerial bombardment by the US and its allies on Syria, the Council met on April 9 to hear briefings from UN experts describing what they knew — and couldn’t verify — about the April 7 attack. They said they had gotten reports from nongovernmental organizations having received “hundreds” of cases of people exposed to chemical weapons.
Quickly, Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, accused the Syrian government and its “monster,” President Bashar al-Assad, of launching the toxins in Douma, in a rebel-held enclave near Damascus.
France, which has showed the most regret among Council members for the demise, in November 2017, of the UN’s independent accountability mechanism to investigate chemical weapons’ use in Syria, called the Douma act a form of “state terror.”
At the same time, Britain told the Council that all “options” were on the table in the country’s response to the Douma attack but an inquiry was necessary. On the other side of the fence, Russia called the military threats by Trump “very very dangerous” — for the world — as the ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, contended that no chemical weapons attack had occurred.
Symbolizing how chaotic, impulsive and enraged the three countries of the West and Russia reacted in language and other posturing to the attack, the Council met the next day to vote on three draft resolutions that were all swatted down during an afternoon of often-angry speeches by members. Yet some elected members, from Equatorial Guinea to the Ivory Coast, from Kazakhstan to the Netherlands, tried to make the center hold, asking for calm on all fronts.
One draft was proposed by the US and the other two by Russia. All drafts reacted to the Douma attack by degrees: the US and many other countries wanted not just an independent investigation but to ascribe blame, similar to the Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM, which collapsed because of a Russia veto.
Such a new tool could enable, under the best of circumstances, a referral to the International Criminal Court or other tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators. But Russia has refused to vote yes for such a mandate to go ahead, to protect its Syrian ally, some governments suggest, and to avoid appearing complicit in a war crime.
The other drafts veered from assigning blame to seeking authorization for an independent inquiry and authorizing an impartial body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, to travel to Syria to determine what chemical weapons were deployed, if any. The third version would have asked OPCW investigators to ascribe blame but let the Council approve the results, a censoring choice.
Meanwhile, the White House, the State Department and other US agencies held conversations with US allies, including Theresa May of Britain, Emmanuel Macron of France and Angela Merkel of Germany, but the results appeared to be unspecific. As the State Department said on April 10, “We are looking for a coordinated response, whatever that response might be, to the situation in Syria.”
The OPCW has since dispatched investigators to Douma to gather evidence, which with each minute can vanish literally into the air. The US State Department said the Douma incident was “the ninth attack using some sort of chemical substance this year alone,” adding that “it used to be that when attacks would take place the world would stand up and take attention and it has become, in the view of the U.S. Government and many others as well, far too common.
“So I think it’s taken the world to stand up and say this is unacceptable; this is horrific, and we can’t stand for this anymore.”
By April 12, Western calls for military actions on Syrian territory de-escalated and even incorporated reason in considering how a strike could worsen the problem for Syrians. The threats were also leavened with another Cold War reality: Russia saying it would shoot down any unwanted warplanes over Syrian territory.
The Security Council’s voices against an attack by the US became more vociferous, too. Bolivia, an elected member, requested a closed meeting, backed by Russia, to address the “recent escalation of rhetoric regarding Syria and the threat of the use of unilateral actions.”
The meeting went nowhere despite some original good intentions. Sweden, for example, probably the most experienced mediator in the Council, proposed a “high-level mission on disarmament” to come to grips with the chemical weapons stockpiling in Syria.
But the US and Russia would hear none of it Thursday afternoon. As one diplomat said, using an African metaphor, “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.”
By Friday the 13th, the ill will quieted down in the Council as it met in another emergency session — this time openly and requested by Russia — on the illegality of the US going to war in Syria.
Russia had wanted António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, to speak at the meeting. But symbolizing more ambivalence of the week, Guterres said the day before he wouldn’t attend: No, he told PassBlue when he was asked about it in a UN hallway, although by Friday he was there.
His remarks traveled across the spectrum of the Middle East’s worst problems, from the Palestine-Israel confrontations in Gaza to the sorrowful scale of suffering in the Yemen war. He left no doubt, however, about the source of upheaval, saying, “Syria indeed today represents the most serious threat to international peace and security.”
By Friday, Russia seemed more willing to admit that a gas attack had even happened in Douma, conceding, “We trust OPCW produces an independent probe,” Nebenzia said.
Later, as he headed out of the UN, Nebenzia was asked what the Western allies have been wondering all along, which is, Why does Russia still support Assad?
“We don’t support Assad,” Nebenzia said. “We support a sovereign nation.”
[Editor’s note: The Council met on April 14 as well to vote on a draft resolution condemning the Western allies’ airstrikes in Syria; the resolution failed to pass.]
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.