The New York Times reports that U.S. won’t insist that a U.N. resolution enforcing the Russian plan for Syria to give up its chemical weapons include military force as an enforcement mechanism.
The French had put forth a draft resolution this week that included such a mechanism, which would authorize the use of military force, in the event that Syria doesn’t comply with the resolution’s requirements for disclosing, transferring, and destroying its chemical-weapons stockpiles, using Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter (affectionately known to some as the U.N.’s provision for “peace-making” operations, and which authorized the first Gulf War, the 2011 Libya intervention, etc.). The Russians immediately raised problems with the draft, and the Obama administration has now decided, according to the Times, there’s no way they can convince the Russians to withhold their veto and let through a resolution that includes Chapter VII authority, so they’re not going to try.
A Chapter VII resolution would make a U.S. attack on Syria, in the event they don’t abide by the resoluteion, perfectly legal under international law, though the U.S. of course maintains that it has the legal right to strike Syria without one (for the sake of international security, self-defense, etc.).
The latest draft of the resolution before the Security Council, according to Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch, wouldn’t have quite the same threat as the French draft resolution the Russians opposed — it would tie the use of force to a future chemical-weapons attack, rather than a schedule of Syria’s surrendering its chemical weapons (the Russians would presumably also object to this, Lynch points out). But the Times report suggests that, in the direct negotiations happening between Secretary of State Kerry and his Russian counterpart in Geneva, that won’t be on the table, either, because it would still be a resolution authorizing force.
Administration officials say they want a Security Council resolution to enforce the Syria-Russia agreement to have “teeth in it,” but that won’t involve anything more than the international shaming of Syria and its partners and debatably enforceable sanctions (which make weapons shipments from Russia to Syria illegal, but will Putin really pay attention?).
This gets to the fundamental flaw in the negotiations: The Obama administration is more interested in keeping the plan alive than it is in continuing to apply the threat of force. These two are not mutually exclusive endeavors — as the president himself has noted, in claiming that the U.S.’s threat of force brought Syria to the negotiating table. Whether he was right about this specific situation or not, the U.S.’s threat now recedes daily, leaving the “lifeline” the president grasped solely in the hands of Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad.