For nearly a year, Syria's government has sustained a violent crackdown against opposition protesters. The international community has struggled to agree on a unified response, and on Saturday, the latest effort to bring pressure on Syria's leaders fell apart.
Russia and China blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian government for attacks against civilians. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States was "disgusted" by the double veto.
"The international community must protect the Syrian people from this abhorrent brutality," she said Saturday. "But a couple members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant."
Chance To Back Arab League Lost
It was a missed opportunity, Rice tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin.
"It was an Arab-sponsored text, and what made it important was that it was the Arab League, for the first time, coming to the U.N., asking the Security Council to back their initiative," she says.
The purpose of the resolution was to politically back the Arab initiative, Rice says, which called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to delegate responsibility to his vice president for negotiating a democratic transition. It was a significant resolution, she says, but also one that had been carefully adjusted to meet the concerns of many member states – including Russia and China.
"What Moscow came back with at the 11th hour were really amendments designed to be impossible for the rest of the council to take," Rice says.
The vote came amid reports that more than 200 people were killed in the Syrian city of Homs on Saturday. Rice says that made Russia and China's veto that much more frustrating.
"First of all, we all felt that it was outrageous in any instance for Russia and China to veto a resolution that was really a political expression of support for the Arab League initiative and for the people of Syria and a condemnation of violence," she says. "But it was even more outrageous that they would do so at a time when Assad was stepping up the killing in such a horrific way."
Now that the vote is over, the international community's options are looking slim.
"What it means," Rice says, "is that many more Syrians, innocent Syrians, are going to be killed by their government."
The Arab League will have to regroup, she says.
"They will have our support and assistance and that of most of the international community to end the violence and allow the people of Syria to have the future of peace and freedom that they deserve," she says.
It's too early to predict much else, she says, including military pressure. Rice says the U.S. will use both diplomatic and economic pressure to support the Syrian people.
"We'll have to see if Russia and China, when they feel the full weight of the outrage of response to their actions in the region and in Syria, change course," she says. "And if they don't, we will certainly look at every means at our disposal to increase pressure on Assad. His days are numbered. There's no question that this regime cannot endure. The only question is how many people will die before it ends."
Russian officials are traveling to Damascus this week to talk with Assad. Moscow has a great deal of influence in Syria, Rice says.
"Unfortunately, rather than pressure the regime, thus far they have chosen to coddle and protect it," she says.
Meanwhile the Arab League has to figure out what to do about Syria next.
"They're not giving up, we're not giving up," Rice says. "We will fight to support the people of Syria until their legitimate democratic aspirations are realized."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The failure of the U.N. Security Council resolution was the latest setback to diplomatic efforts to quell the violence in Syria. The resolution was meant to endorse an Arab League plan to promote a political transition in Syria. It was toned down by ambassadors in response to objections from Russia. They took out a requirement for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to cede power. And they added language barring outside military intervention. Still, Russia and China blocked the resolution. They said it would have been a violation of Syria's sovereignty.
U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, says it was a missed opportunity. We reached her by phone late yesterday.
AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE U.S. TO U.N.: It was an Arab-sponsored text, and what made it important was that it was the Arab League, for the first time, coming to the U.N. asking the Security Council to back their initiative. And we thought it was a very important text and a strong text that was voted on because the purpose was to give full political backing to the Arab initiative, which called for a political process in which Assad would have to delegate responsibility to his vice president to negotiate the terms of a democratic transition.
So it was a very significant resolution, but one that had been adjusted to meet the specific concerns of a number of member states, including what we had heard from Russia and China during the week, and what Moscow came back with at the 11th hour - were really amendments designed to be impossible for the rest of the council to take.
MARTIN: This vote came amid reports that more than 200 people had been killed in Homs, Syria. Did these reports affect the Security Council vote in any way?
U.N.: Yes, they did. First of all, we all felt that it was outrageous in any instance for Russia and China to veto a resolution that was really a political expression of support for the Arab League initiative, and for the people of Syria and a condemnation of violence. But it was even more outrageous that they would do so at a time when Assad was stepping up the killing in such a horrific way.
And the Russians introduced these amendments with the aim of trying to delay a vote until the middle of next week or beyond. And the rest of the council said no. They said that the situation on the ground is rapidly deteriorating; Assad is using all the time that he has to kill more people. And they would not be complicit in a stalemate or stalling tactic by Russia to delay the vote.
So it made it very certain that despite Russia's delaying efforts the vote was going to happen. And Russia and China will have to be held accountable and responsible for their actions.
MARTIN: So, what does this mean? Has the international community run out of diplomatic options at this point, when it comes to Syria?
U.N.: What it means in the first instance, very tragically, Rachel, is that many more Syrians - innocent Syrians are going to be killed by their government. And what a hopefully it will soon also mean is that the Arab League, which has boldly tried to broker a process that can lead to a negotiated political settlement will need to regroup. They will have our support and assistance and that of most of the international community to end the violence and allow the people of Syria to have the future of peace and freedom that they deserve.
We, in the United States, have put very intensive sanctions on Syria. So has the European Union, Turkey and the Arab League has also passed a plan that would entail sanctions. So the pressure is going to continue and intensify and we will do what must to protect the people of Syria. But it's premature to predict exactly what form the next steps will take.
MARTIN: Are there plans to apply military pressure?
U.N.: Rachel, I don't want to speculate about what steps may ensue. We want to use diplomatic means to support the people of Syria. That has been their preference all along. We will also continue to use economic pressure. The opposition in Syria is yearning for a political settlement to that. They're not requesting external military intervention, nor did the Arab League. In fact, they asked for just the opposite.
But now that this political initiative has failed, we'll have to see if Russia and China - when they feel the full weight of the outrage of response to their actions in the region and in Syria - change course. And if they don't, we certainly will look at every means at our disposal to increase pressure on Assad.
His days are numbered. There's no question that this regime cannot endure. The only question is how many people will die before it ends.
MARTIN: Ambassador, Russian officials are traveling to Damascus this coming week. Do you have a sense of what message the Russians are planning to convey to Syria's leaders?
U.N.: I don't. I can't guess. And if it is meaningful it would have been better delivered in advance. And it would've been much better delivered with the weight of a unanimous Security Council resolution behind it.
MARTIN: Can the Russians play ever a constructive role unilaterally in this, if they have the Syrians' ear?
U.N.: Russians have a great deal of influence in Syria and with the Assad regime. They have not thus far chosen to use it with sufficient force to change Assad's behavior. Unfortunately, rather than pressure the regime, thus far they've chosen to coddle and protect it.
MARTIN: And finally, what does this mean for the Arab League's plan for Syria? This was the plan embedded in this U.N. Security Council resolution. Without the Security Council endorsement does it have a future?
U.N.: I think the Arab League will reconvene, as they intend on February 11th, with enhanced resolve to find a way to end the killing and stop the terror of the Assad regime. My Arab colleagues who were all there in attendance, all of whom co-sponsored this resolution, were as outraged and dismayed as the United States and everybody else with this outcome. They're not giving up, we're not giving up. And we will fight to support the people of Syria until their legitimate democratic aspirations are realized.
MARTIN: Susan Rice is the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Ambassador Rice, thanks so much for talking with us
U.N.: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.