UN Paralyzed by Chemical Weapons

Photo by DoD News | CC BY 2.0

An alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria has once again ratcheted up tensions in the war ravaged country. It is almost one year ago to the day since the last alleged chemical attack led to the launch of sixty Tomahawk missiles by the U.S.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., stated to the assembled representatives, “The Russian regime whose hands are all covered in blood cannot be shamed by pictures of its victims.” She then went on to say that she could hold up pictures of dead women, dead children and “dead babies in diapers”. She further asserted that Iran shared in this guilt. The Russian Federation ambassador, Vasily Nebenzia, responded that the Russian Federation had its team of chemical and radiological specialists on the ground in the disputed area and found no evidence of any chemical weapons. He further stated that they were unable to find any bodies or anyone seeking treatment at any of the medical centers, and that all of the doctors they had spoken to denied anyone had sought treatment for exposure to chemical weapons.

So here we are again in the Alice and Wonderland world of “Sentence before verdict” and “Believing six impossible things before breakfast.” The dueling quotes used by the Russian and U.K. ambassadors in the alleged nerve agent poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury. There is however on the surface at least one critical difference. This time around Russia cannot be kept out of the loop.

In the now infamous Skripal case the U.K. has refused to allow Russia to cooperate in the investigation, as is Britain’s right under the OPCW convention. They have also refused to answer any of Russia’s request for information and refused any consular visits to the Skripals. Both of these are violations of international agreements to which the British are signatories, but hardly rate when compared to the kind of violations that the permanent members of the security council get up to with fair regularity.

This time there seemed to be no impediments to an immediate deployment of an OPCW team to investigate the alleged attack. But then where would we be in this Cold War redux – 2.0 in the modern parlance – if along with poisoned spies, Harry Potter cloaks, and Rasputin daggers, if we didn’t have a little Kafkaesque bureaucratic intrigue to throw in? Aye as they say in Scotland and Shakespeare, “There’s the rub”. And what do I mean by this persiflage of verbiage? Why competing resolutions of course.

Both the U.S. and Russia presented their own version as to how the investigation should proceed and both were voted on. Nine votes were required for the motion to carry. The U.S. resolution garnered 12 votes for, 2 votes against, and 1 abstention. However as one of the votes against was Russia’s the vote did not carry due to Russia’s veto.  The Russian resolution gained only six votes and so also failed to pass.

This does naturally enough at first glance seem like strong support for the American resolution. Twice as many votes and all that. It is, alas, more complicated than first glances allow. The permanent council is made up of 15 countries. The U.S plus the E.U./NATO countries along with Kuwait gives the U.S. an automatic 7 votes thereby guaranteeing that the Russian resolution at best could get 8 votes in a race to 9. Five countries voted for both resolutions raising the  U.S. total to eleven. The one outlier was Peru which voted for the U.S. resolution and against the Russian resolution.

To add flavor to the proceedings the famed Scandinavian “honest broker” card was also played as they too floated their own proposal. The Russian Federation called for the Swedish resolution to be voted on immediately but the Swedish ambassador demurred asking for a recess “for consultation”. The Russian ambassador declared that he was perplexed as to why there needed to be a break before the vote but “out of respect” agreed to the recess. As a result this is where things were left for yet another classic example of paralysis by analysis at the U.N.

So what’s the difference between the two resolutions? Finally we have something simple to tell you. The Russians are seeking an oversight system for the investigation that they feel can’t be gamed. Whereas the U.S. are seeking a system that they feel can’t be obstructed. At this point I’m sure you are thinking, “Aren’t those two the same thing?” Well….that’s where things get murky again. The U.S. has an oversized influence at the U.N. and pretty much everything that goes on in terms of “cooperative” ventures on an international scale. In order to counter this influence Russia was seeking the right to direct procedural intervention if they see something they feel is amiss during the investigation.  The Americans on the other hand want everything to stay at arms length, what with their arm being so long and all. So a Ruski stalemate it is at least until/if the Swedish proposal is put to a vote.

After the defeat of the two resolutions and the tabling of the third the live feed I was watching immediately turned to CNN and Anderson Cooper interviewing two American Generals. All three immediately turned their discussion not to the proceedings we had just witnessed but to the military options available. They then went to a canned clip of the President, John Bolton sitting at his side, saying “We have a lot of military options.”. also proclaiming his horror at the events “that we all can see.”  This wrapped up with Secretary of Defense John Mattis stating “All options are on the table.”

So there you have it. Chemical weapons paralysis at the U.N. along with the looming threat of U.S. bombs dropping on Syria in defiance of the Russian Federation’s proclamation that “Any attack against Syria is completely unacceptable.” Dire consequences are not difficult to imagine but to my mind we are still at the Kabuki theater stage of things and WWIII is not yet in the offing. As the neocons have always said, “Anyone can go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran.”