Obama Administration Signals Willingness to Circumvent Security Council on Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | August 28, 2013 | 9:15 PM EDT

The U.N. Security Council sits in New York. (UN Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

(CNSNews.com) – The State Department implicitly acknowledged Wednesday that despite the administration’s enthusiastic embrace of the United Nations and its determination to deepen engagement with the world body, when it feels that reasonable action is being stymied – as with Russia’s stance on Syria – it will circumvent the Security Council and look elsewhere.

The State Department and other advocates of strong U.S. engagement with the U.N. maintain, however, that it remains important and relevant.

After Moscow on Wednesday opposed yet another Western initiative on Syria – a draft Security Council resolution sponsored by Britain – State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf expressed the administration’s frustration with what she described as “Russian intransigence.”

“What we’ve seen – not just today, not just last week, but over the course of many months – is the Russians at every move doing things to fail to hold the Syrian regime accountable,” she said.

Harf noted Russia has vetoed three Syria resolutions since the civil war began, and last week had blocked an attempt to issue a “press statement” – the weakest Security Council response available – even though it would have merely condemned last Wednesday’s alleged chemical weapons attack, without assigning blame.

(China joined Russia in vetoing the three earlier resolutions, which were relatively mild and did not seek to impose sanctions against the Assad regime. But Harf appeared inclined to focus on Russia, saying, “I think it’s been clear that Russia has really been the most intransigent” of the council’s five permanent members on the Syria question.)

Citing recent comments by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Harf said the Security Council should rise to its responsibility to respond to the chemical weapons use, but as all previous attempts there had been blocked “we cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield for the perpetrators of these crimes.”

Despite the frustrations, Harf held the line on the administration’s regard for the U.N.

“We believe it’s an important venue, obviously,” she said. “We value the work of the U.N. We’ve long said that we welcome U.N. actions on Syria. This case was no different, but again, we cannot be held up in responding by Russia’s intransigence.”

Legal without UN say-so?

Harf would not be drawn on whether the administration would consider military action against Syria without U.N. authorization to be legal, repeatedly declining to provide “legal analysis” and emphasizing that President Obama has yet to make a decision on a response to the chemical attack.

In a separate debate to the one over the need for Obama to seek congressional authorization, the question of the legality of a strike without a green light from the Security Council is also being mulled.

“Foreign military strikes on Syria would be illegal under international law unless authorized by the Security Council,” argued Mark Leon Goldberg, editor of U.N. Dispatch, the blog of the U.N. Foundation – which advocates strong U.S. engagement with the U.N.

“With the singular exception of a country’s inherent right to self defense, the Security Council – and only the Security Council – has the legal authority to permit a country’s sovereignty from being violated in this way.”

Goldberg conceded that action without council approval may be “morally justified,” and that the use of chemical weapons is illegal and “must be punished and deterred.”

Still, he said, if Obama does intervene in Syria without council authorization, “he would grievously harm a basic tenant [sic] of international law.”

But Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass argued that “the U.N. Security Council is not the sole or unique custodian about what is legal and what is legitimate.”

“To basically say only the U.N. Security Council can make something legitimate seems to me to be a position that cannot be supported, because it would allow in this case a country like Russia to be the arbiter of international law and, more broadly, international relations,” he said during a conference call on Monday.

“I, for one, would not be willing to do that,” Haass added. “And I don’t think the United States should be willing to do it, and I don't think the United States will do it.”

“I think international law is clear on this,” the U.N. and Arab League special representative to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday. “International law says that military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council. That is what international law says.”

But at a briefing in New York later, secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman Farhan Haq was asked three times whether Ban agreed with Brahimi’s stance on the legal issue, and each time he declined to reply directly, instead pointing to a comment Ban made in a speech in the Netherlands earlier in the day.

In that speech, however, Ban did not directly address the question of legality.

What he did say was that the Security Council must uphold its “moral and political responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations,” that it must “find the unity to act” on Syria, and that “it must use its authority for peace.”

Back at the State Department, Harf rejected the suggestion that going outside the Security Council amounted to the U.S. going it alone as it mulls options.

She said Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have had “dozens and dozens” of discussions “with our counterparts across the world, whether it’s NATO, the Arab League, a host of countries in the Middle East, in Europe, elsewhere.”

“Clearly, we are consulting the international community and a broad range of international partners on the best course forward,” she added. “The U.N. isn’t the only international body that we’re consulting here.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow