Jo Biddle, AFP
Last updated: 27 September, 2013

The birth pangs of a Russia-US resolution on Syria

Three times the United States has brought resolutions to the UN to condemn the Syrian regime over the brutality of the country’s civil war. And three times its efforts were felled by Moscow.

Now in just over two weeks since the former Cold War foes launched a major diplomatic drive, the UN Security Council may vote Friday on a new joint resolution to ensure the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

“Some have wondered why it took us some time to get here,” a senior State Department official said Thursday, after both Russia and the US signed off on the draft text.

“Actually, as UN Security Council resolutions go, this one was negotiated pretty quickly. Sometimes they take a considerable period of time.”

It was a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by US Secretary of State John Kerry to reporters in London on Monday, September 10, that sparked a fire.

Within hours of Kerry’s challenge that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — accused of using chemical weapons on his own people in August — could stave off threatened US military strikes by turning over his stockpile, experts were packing bags and heading for flights to Geneva.

Behind closed doors in a luxury hotel just steps from the United Nations and with a view of Geneva’s famous lake, Russian and US weapons experts — little used to being thrust into the public eye — went straight into round-the-clock sessions to turn the idea into reality.

As hordes of journalists beseiged the hotel lobby, much to the disgust of the more well-heeled clients and some sniffy waiters, the delegations came and went.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov swept out twice one afternoon, most likely to talk to Moscow from a secure line in the nearby Russian mission, but causing consternation amid rumors his plane was on standby on the tarmac.

Then relief, as the news came from the Russian team, “it’s OK. We’re staying through the night.” The negotiations were back on. By the early hours of Saturday morning, September 14, a draft framework agreement was being pored over by the White House and the Kremlin.

At one point, learning that Lavrov was getting some air by the pool, Kerry went out to join him, haggling over final details on a wooden table poolside.

Then both men faced the cameras to announce a deal.

But the landmark Russian-US agreement to remove and destroy an estimated 1,000 tonnes of chemical weapons and agents by mid-2014 still had to be turned into a draft resolution to go before the UN Security Council.

It also has to be agreed to by a little known but key body, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or OPCW.

So it was back to the negotiations — this time in the labyrinthian United Nations headquarters in New York during what Kerry called the annual “speed-dating diplomacy” of the UN General Assembly.

And again it was Kerry and Lavrov who, face-to-face, hammered out the fine print.

Jackets off, pencils in hand, they went through the text on Tuesday afternoon in a Russian holding room adorned with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as pictures of some of his favorite animals, such as tigers.

Now an idea that was first conceived in London, shaped in Geneva and finally given form in New York stands poised to be brought to life once the Security Council votes on it.

“It’s been, some would say, a rather productive day, certainly some important things have happened here today,” the State Department official said, smiling at the thought that some hard-fought diplomacy may finally have borne fruit.