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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says U.N. resolution on Syria is toothless; so why would Russia and China veto it?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today dismissed a U.S.-backed European effort to adopt a U.N. resolution condemning Syria's bloody crackdown on protesters as a meaningless gesture, saying "it is not enough to pass non-binding measures wagging a finger at Damascus."

The Florida Republican said the United Nations must "impose strong sanctions on Damascus" in response to its "nuclear intransigence, its gross human rights abuses, its longstanding development of unconventional and ballistic missile capabilities, and its support for violent extremists."

"A non-binding measure will fail to compel the regime to change its behavior," she added. "Responsible nations must develop, implement, and enforce stronger sanctions, in the Security Council and beyond, in order to meet this goal."

It is true that a European draft Security Council resolution, backed by the United States, contains no specific threat to punish Syria with sanctions or military force, though it does call on states to prevent Syria from trading in weapons. But is it the toothless initiative she claims it is?

U.S. officials say that they have focused on imposing unilateral sanctions on Syria because the prospects for concerted U.N. action on that front is dim, given resistance from several council members: China, Russia, Lebanon, India, South Africa, and Brazil.

These governments see the European initiative to condemn Syria less as a feckless exercise than a potentially sinister first step in process that may exacerbate political tensions in the Middle East or lead to possible foreign intervention in Syria. Russia and China may be prepared to exercise their veto power to stop it.

"It could be misunderstood by destructive opposition forces in Syria who, as you know, declare they want regime change in Damascus," Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin told Russian state television this week.

The reason that Moscow and Beijing are so alarmed about the draft is that experience at the United Nations demonstrates that once the Security Council makes a demand of a country, it frequently comes back to demand more if it is ignored.

On February 22, a week after Muammar al-Qaddafi ordered a bloody crackdown on Libyan demonstrators, the council adopted a "non-binding" presidential statement condemning Tripoli's action and demanding that it stop. Qaddafi ignored it.

Within a month, the Security Council had issued two legally binding, Chapter 7 enforcement resolutions imposing sanctions on Libya, launching an International Criminal Court prosecution, and authorizing military action against Qaddafi's forces. Clearly, the threshold for action is considerably higher in Syria, which still can count on support at the United Nations from Arab governments. But events on the ground, including fresh reports of government repression and the flight of Syrians into Turkey, could change governments' calculations. 

Wide-ranging Security Council sanctions against Iran and North Korea also began with relatively mild non-binding statements demanding that Tehran and Pyongyang halt the development of their ballistic missile and nuclear programs. For the moment, the Security Council has yet to act on the International Atomic Energy Agency's determination that Syria was secretly developing a clandestine nuclear reactor before Israeli destroyed it in a September 2007 airstrike.

But U.S. and European governments will likely address Syria's nuclear ambitions after they finish the current push to censor their alleged political repression of civilians.

The draft resolution currently under consideration condemns Syria's "systematic violation" of human rights, "demands" an immediate end to the violence, and "unfettered" access to U.N. rights monitors and aid workers. It also calls on Syria to lift the siege on anti-government towns, implement democratic reforms, and cooperate with the U.N.

In some sense, the most important are a pair of provisions at the end of the draft that require the U.N. secretary-general to report on Syria's compliance with the council's demands within two weeks, and then again every month after, ensuring that the Security Council will have frequent opportunities to ratchet up the pressure. The council will, as they say in U.N. parlance, "remain actively seized of the matter."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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