RUSSIA and China on Thursday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that threatened sanctions against Syria and President Bashar al-Assad if he does not end the use of heavy weapons.
The third Russia-China veto in nine months opened up an acrimonious battle at the 15-nation council with Russia being blamed for the world powers’ failure to get international action to halt the Syria conflict.
There were 11 votes in favour, with Russia and China voting against and with Pakistan and South Africa abstaining.
As two of the five permanent members of the council, Russia or China can veto any resolution.
Amid growing doubts over the future of the peace mission of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, the United States said it would now act outside of the UN body to confront Assad. Russia responded that the West wanted ‘military intervention’.
‘We will intensify our work with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime and to deliver assistance to those in need,’ US ambassador Susan Rice said, pledging intervention.
‘The Security Council has failed utterly in its most important task on the agenda this year,’ she added.
She also warned, following on from the wmd formula use to invade Iraq, of reports that Assad’s government could use chemical weapons in the battle against the opposition.
‘The United Kingdom is appalled at the veto of Russia and China,’ added Britain’s UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant, whose country, another permanent council member, took the lead in writing the resolution.
‘The effect of their actions is to protect a brutal regime. They have chosen to put their national interests ahead of the lives of millions of Syrians,’ Lyall Grant told the council without blushing after the UK’s Iraqi and Libyan bloodbaths.
He added: ‘It is clear that Russia only aims to give more time to the Syrian regime to crush the opposition,’ said France’s envoy Gerard Araud.
‘Refusing Annan the means of pressure that he asked for is to threaten his mission,’ Araud told the Council.
The British text, backed by the United States, France, Germany and Portugal, threatened non-military sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if Assad does not withdraw heavy weapons from Syrian cities in 10 days.
However the sanctions were only a threat and would have needed a new resolution, western envoys stressed.
Russia accused Western nations of seeking to use the proposed resolution to justify military intervention in Syria.
The resolution sought to ‘open the path to the pressure of sanctions and further to external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs,’ Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said after his veto.
Churkin said the West had sought to ‘fan the flames of extremists, including terrorist groups.’
China’s ambassador Li Baodong said Western nations had been ‘arrogant and rigid’ in negotiations on the resolution.
The sanctions proposal was added to a resolution on renewing the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) whose 90-day mandate ends on Friday.
Without a resolution, the UN may have to hurriedly withdraw the nearly 300 unarmed observers now in Damascus.
The UNSMIS operation has been suspended since June 16 because of the mounting violence.
Russia had said it could not accept sanctions or action under Chapter VII.
It drew up a counter-resolution which would just renew the UNSMIS mandate but withdrew the text because it became clear that it could not get the nine votes needed to pass.
The five Western countries along with Colombia and Morocco had indicated they would abstain on the Russia text, assuring its failure.
India’s ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri said it was ‘regrettable’ that the council had not sent a united message to the Syrian leadership to back Annan. He said council powers had acted on their ‘national interests’.
Pakistan, which abstained, said that urgent action must be taken to make sure UNSMIS stays in Syria.
More than 17,000 people have been killed since an uprising against Assad began 16 months ago, activists say. The Security Council faces growing criticism over its failure to take action.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon and international envoy Annan had called on the Council to unite and take strong action on Syria in the hours ahead of the vote.
Ban said there was an ‘extreme urgency’ for action to make government and opposition forces halt the violence. Annan said the council must take ‘decisive’ action on the conflict.
In a press conference published on the Russia Today website, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, warned of the consequences of the US plans to bypass the Security Council and interfere in Syria’s internal affairs.
He stressed that Russia has not backed away for a moment, throughout the course of the crisis in Syria, from searching for a political settlement.
He rejected Western accusations against Russia, saying that the attempts of some Western countries to make Moscow seem responsible for the situation in Syria was ‘absolutely unacceptable’.
Lukashevich warned that the US’ announcement of its intention to work outside the Security Council and interfere in Syria’s internal affairs constitutes ‘a very very alarming signal.
‘If such declarations and such plans are elements of actual policy, I think that this is a very, very alarming signal to all of us about how the international community plans to respond to international conflict situations,’ said Lukashevich.
He added that the task of all external players, particularly Security Council members, is to use all their capabilities and work within the resolutions previously agreed on, specially resolutions 2042 and 2043, and what was agreed on at the Geneva meeting.
In another context, Lukashevich stressed Russia’s rejection of US threats of taking revenge over the Russian veto against the Western draft resolution on the crisis in Syria.
He criticised measures taken by the US Congress to prevent the Pentagon from cooperating with the Russian Aporns Exports company as a bid to take revenge on Russia because of its veto at the Security Council, dismissing the threats of imposing sanctions on Russia as unacceptable.
He stressed that taking revenge on Russia because of the veto or its principled stance on a peaceful settlement to the crisis in Syria and placing the responsibility for escalation on it will not work.
Meanwhile the Dubai police chief Khalfan has criticised the way a US warship has dealt with an incident, saying it moved into international waters right after the shooting.
He rejected US claims that a navy ship warned Indian fishermen to move away from it before firing and killing one of them after they failed to heed the order.
The fisherman died and three others were wounded last Monday when the ship opened fire on their vessel near the port of Jebel Ali off Dubai in the tense waters of the southern Gulf.
The ‘Indian fishermen were not warned to move away by the US Navy,’ General Dahi Khalfan said.
‘The crew told the Dubai police that they did not move towards the ship and instead attempted to avoid it.’
‘According to our findings and testimonies of the injured, I believe that they told the truth,’ Khalfan said.
On Tuesday, India urged the UAE to investigate the shooting.
Khalfan criticised the way the US ship had dealt with the incident, saying it had moved into international waters right after the shooting. Dubai police will deal with the case as a ‘murder,’ he said.
US defence officials said the fishing boat had ignored warnings not to approach the refuelling ship USNS Rappahannock, and that sailors on board the American vessel feared it could pose a threat.
‘Since 2000 we’ve been very concerned about small boats,’ a defence official said, referring to the year of a deadly suicide bomb attack by Al-Qaeda against the destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 US sailors.
The US Navy has been building up its forces in the oil-rich Gulf region amid mounting tensions with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme.
Tehran has warned it could close the Strait of Hormuz in the southern Gulf if international sanctions begin to bite, potentially disrupting shipping and world oil supplies through the strategic waterway.
Washington has deployed two aircraft carriers to the region – the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Enterprise – and doubled its mine-sweeper fleet in the area from four to eight ships.
On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that it had brought forward the deployment of a third strike group, led by the carrier USS John C Stennis, by four months, in order to further bolster its presence.