The Arab League will ask the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to adopt a resolution endorsing an Arab plan for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer powers to his deputy, but it is unclear whether Russia will veto, abstain or vote “yes.”
Tuesday’s meeting of the 15-nation council will include Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, among other officials. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is not expected to attend.
A vote on the resolution drafted by Europeans and Arabs could come before the end of the week, diplomats say.
Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted resolution in October that condemned Syria and threatened it with sanctions.
The new draft resolution, obtained by Reuters, calls for a “political transition” in Syria. While it does not call for military action or U.N. sanctions against Syria, it does say that the Security Council could “adopt further measures” if Damascus does not comply with the terms of the resolution.
Veto-power China, as well as South Africa, India and Pakistan, also have reservations about the draft but are expected to follow Russia’s lead when the text is put to a vote, U.N. envoys say. Resolutions pass if they get nine votes in favor and no vetoes.
Western envoys say 10 nations have pledged to vote “yes.”
This scenario is very likely. Several diplomats said Washington is convinced that Moscow plans to use its veto again. Russia has not explicitly threatened to veto the European-Arab resolution, but has said the draft is unacceptable in its present form.
Russia may feel that abstaining from a vote on the draft resolution, which would enable it to pass, would be tantamount to tacitly supporting the ouster of Assad, whose government is one of the Russian arms industry’s top customers.
Analysts say Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- who is running for president in March and bitterly criticized the council resolution authorizing the NATO campaign in Libya, which Russia let pass by abstaining -- wants to look firm in the face of Western pressure.
Vetoing the Syria resolution may be exactly the kind of strong message Putin wants to send the United States and the EU as it strives to help its allies remain in power in Damascus.
But there could be problems with vetoing the Syrian resolution. Moscow might risk alienating the Gulf Arab states and other nations that support the Arab League plan.
Also, if Assad is eventually overthrown, those who replace him might not allow Russia to keep its naval bases in Syria.
This is also a possible outcome. Russia may feel that the negative consequences of a veto outweigh the benefits of blocking the resolution. Abstaining would enable Russia to register its opposition to the measure while allowing it to pass.
The Arab League, the United States and the EU are attempting to persuade Russia to abstain, arguing that a vote against the resolution would be a vote against the Arab world, diplomats say.
Russia would also improve its strained ties with the United States and the EU by letting the resolution pass.
Moscow, however, has argued that the Arabs are divided and that the Arab League plan does not have the full and unanimous support of all league members.
The opposition Syrian National Council met with Russia’s U.N. delegation on Monday but said the Russians, who have called for negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition, were not happy about the group's demand for Assad to step aside.
This is the least likely scenario but several Western diplomats insisted privately that it is possible to secure a ‘yes’ vote from Russia.
In order for the Russians to vote yes, the Western powers and Arab League would have to dilute the language in their resolution related to support for the Arab League plan, replacing the word “supports’ with something weaker.
But even if Britain and France came up with wording acceptable to the Russians, Qatar, other Arab nations and the United States might object to it, diplomats said.
This is also a possibility. Western diplomats say Russia has been playing for time for months, slowing down negotiations on Syria to prevent the Security Council from doing anything. This could be an attempt to give Assad's government more time to crush the rebellion, diplomats say.
But U.S. and European diplomats want to prevent any attempts by Russia to delay the vote. They want their resolution put to a vote soon, ideally before the end of this week.