U.N. Security Council The Site Of A Showdown Over Syria

The U.S. and its partners say it is "undeniable" that Bashar al-Assad's government used chemical weapons against civilians last week and they are taking their case to the UN Security Council. But, they are likely to face a skeptical Russia and China, who want to wait for a UN team on the ground in Damascus to finish their investigation. A UN envoy on Syria says international law is clear: The Security Council has to endorse any international action. But, if the Security Council remains divided, the U.S. and its partners might have to look for other legal justifications to act.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The U.N. Security Council today was the scene of a diplomatic showdown over Syria. The United Kingdom drafted a resolution calling for a response to Bashar Al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, although Russia contends there's no proof of that. U.N. chemical weapons inspectors are still in Damascus and the Syrian regime wants those inspectors to investigate its claims that rebels used poisonous gas against Syrian troops.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports the Obama administration and its allies say they won't be tied by diplomatic paralysis.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: British Foreign Secretary William Hague says his government had to give it a try at the U.N., but Russia says a resolution is premature. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf says given Russia's position, the U.S. sees no avenue forward at the U.N.

MARIE HARF: We do not believe that the Syrian regime should be able to hide behind the fact that the Russians continue to block action on Syria at the U.N.

KELEMEN: Russia argues that the Security Council can't discuss the chemical weapons attack before it receives a report from U.N. inspectors on the ground, and Syria's Ambassador Bashar Jafari is demanding that the team turn its attention to Syria's allegations that rebels used something close to sarin gas three times in recent days.

AMBASSADOR BASHAR JAFARI: Dozens of Syrian soldiers are currently treated in the Syrian hospitals due to this use of chemical agents by the terrorist-armed groups operating in the countryside of Damascus.

KELEMEN: The U.S. accuses Syria of using the U.N. team as a stalling tactic. Investigators now seem to be caught in the middle and that's not a comfortable place to be, says Charles Duelfer, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.

CHARLES DUELFER: The irony of the position taken by the White House is that if you didn't know who was speaking, you might think it was President Bush prior to the Iraqi invasion.

KELEMEN: Duelfer says the benefit of having a U.N. investigation is that it has more international credibility, but it does take time and the U.S. is unlikely to wait.

DUELFER: The intelligence agencies of various governments may have data which is very good, in fact may even be better than what the U.N. inspectors can obtain, but it will not be seen as credible. So there's this dilemma for governments. Do they want to act on the basis of unilateral information or do they want to act on the basis of internationally agreed data?

KELEMEN: There's also the question of the timing of a military strike. Duelfer says having U.N. inspectors on the ground hasn't prevented action in the past. A Russian U.N. inspector once watched a U.S. cruise missile fly by in Iraq, Duelfer says, and in 1998 his office received a warning ahead of President Clinton's bombing campaign in Iraq.

DUELFER: They weren't explicit about what was going to happen, but you didn't, you know, we weren't stupid.

KELEMEN: The inspectors left. He says the U.N. team now on the ground in Damascus may not get the same warnings. But U.N. officials are asking for more time and urging the U.S. not to strike before the Security Council weighs in. The U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi says international law requires that.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: President Obama and the American administration are not known to be trigger happy. What they will decide, I don't know. But certainly, international law is very clear. The Security Council has to be brought in.

KELEMEN: Brahimi says the U.S. and the Russians both keep telling him they're committed to bringing the warring sides to the negotiating table. In his news conference in Geneva, he wouldn't speculate about how a military strike would affect that diplomacy. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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