Russia To U.S.: Follow U.N. Rules On Syria

As Congress debates whether to give President Obama the authority to attack Syria, Russia's ambassador told a U.S. think tank Friday that the United States should uphold international norms of war and peace.

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Russian officials warn the U.S. that it would be illegal to launch a military strike against Syria without getting U.N. approval. The Obama administration says there's just no chance of that because Russia has blocked the Security Council from any action on Syria for the past two and a half years. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak says there is a lot of talk in Washington these days about upholding international norms against chemical weapons. But he's asking what, about international rules on war and peace?

SERGEI KISLYAK: The consequences of any inappropriate stab with the use of force can be very high, both in terms of the situation on the ground and also in terms of the precedents that it sets or reinforces in diminishing the international norms that we thought we have to agree all of them to, and that's U.N. charter.

KELEMEN: The U.N. charter says countries can only use force in self-defense or if there's approval by the U.N. Security Council. But the Obama administration clearly isn't going that route. Its new ambassador, Samantha Power, says Russia has been holding the Security Council hostage and has been protecting Bashar al-Assad, who she says used chemical weapons last month.

AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWER: In Assad's cost-benefit calculus, he must have weighed the military benefits of using this hideous weapon against the recognition that he could get away with it because Russia would have Syria's back in the Security Council. And on August 21 he staged the largest chemical weapons attack in a quarter-century while U.N. inspectors were sitting on the other side of town.

KELEMEN: Speaking to the Center for American Progress, Power said the international system is not living up to its responsibilities and it's naive, she adds, to think that Russia will let the Security Council play its rightful role. Even if it did, she doubts a belated condemnation will be enough to deter Assad or make diplomacy possible.

POWER: At this stage, the diplomatic process is stalled because one side has just been gassed on a massive scale and the other side so far feels it has gotten away with it.

KELEMEN: But the Russians don't think that a military strike is the way to get to peace talks. And Ambassador Kislyak seems frustrated that Washington is only - as he put it - inviting Russia to accept U.S. intelligence findings about the chemical weapons attack. He told the Center for the National Interest that even U.S. lawmakers didn't want to hear from their Russian counterparts.

KISLYAK: Unfortunately, the leaders of the Congress decided not to get involved in a dialogue with Russian counterparts. We are disappointed. The delegation isn't coming, of course. But I think American legislators lost an opportunity to learn at least some alternative view.

KELEMEN: Russia says it's worried about the rise of extremism in Syria and it suggested that rebels have used chemical weapons in the conflict, a conclusion Russian investigators announced after looking into an earlier incident near Aleppo. The U.S. has dismissed that and says it sees no way forward at the U.N. because of Russia's position. But Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest says it doesn't look like the U.S. is even trying.

PAUL SAUNDERS: If there is sufficient time to have a debate in Congress, why is there not sufficient time to have a discussion at the United Nations Security Council?

KELEMEN: Saunders thinks Russia would be open to a conversation about how to prevent further use of chemical weapons once the Security Council hears from U.N. inspectors. U.S. officials say they don't expect to learn anything they don't already know. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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