The UN Security Council, which has been deadlocked on Syria's 18-month-long conflict for more than a year due to Russia and China, has managed to overcome deep rifts to obtain approval for a statement condemning Syria's shelling of a residential district of the southeastern Turkish town of Akçakale on Wednesday, killing a woman and four children from the same family and wounding at least 13 people.
The decision to try to issue a council statement was a response to a request from Turkey, which asked council members on Wednesday to take "necessary action" to stop Syrian aggression and ensure that the government there respects Turkish territorial integrity. Wednesday's incident represented the most serious cross-border escalation of the 18-month uprising in Syria to date.
According to experts and Turkish officials, Russia's agreement on the statement should not be considered a sign of a change in Russia's Syria policy, and Moscow, which has supported the Syrian regime despite pressure from the international community, will continue to support the embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
“I don't believe that there will be change in Russia's stance in the Syrian crisis. Also in the Geneva meeting Russia played a significant role, but followed a strategy which didn't harm the Syrian regime. Therefore, Russia's agreement on this statement shouldn't be read as a change in its policy,” Hasan Selim Özertem, an expert on Russia from the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), told Today's Zaman.
The concept of a transitional government in Syria was agreed at a meeting in Geneva in June, but the fate of the Assad regime was not decided, upon Russia's insistence.
“Russia is not stepping back. This is just a diplomatic step from Moscow,” added Özertem.
On Thursday, all 15 members of the council agreed to a statement condemning Syria's recent deadly action, saying the Akçakale incident “highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbors and on regional peace and stability.” The statement also extended condolences to the families of the victims and to the government and people of Turkey.
The council demanded an immediate end to such violations of international law, calling on the Syrian regime to fully respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors. Russia's agreement that Syrian shelling violated international law was a key concession by Moscow after 18 months of conflict.
A senior Turkish diplomat, who spoke to Today's Zaman on the condition of anonymity, stated that Turkey doesn't expect any change in Russia's Syria policy despite Moscow's agreement on the statement condemning Syria's shelling. “But at least the approval of such a statement in the UN Security Council is a positive sign,” said the diplomat.
The revolt in Syria has dragged on for far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising, partly because of Assad's unwillingness to meet the demands of the Syrian people, but also because of the support of global powers, including Russia.
The original Western-backed draft, circulated to the 15-nation council on Wednesday and proposed by Azerbaijan, condemned the shelling “in the strongest terms” and called it a violation of international law. Proposed Russian amendments never mentioned any breaches of international law, so the inclusion in the final text was a concession by Moscow.
According to Özertem, there were several reasons behind Russia's agreement on the statement that condemns its ally, Syria. “Firstly, Russia is trying to create a positive image prior to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's visit to Turkey, which is expected in mid-October. Secondly, in order to decrease the pressure on the Syrian regime, Russia agreed on this statement as this situation will also serve Russian interests. Thirdly, [the UN Security Council] , which is criticized due to its ineffectiveness in the Syrian crisis, will gain credibility with this statement,” said Özertem.
Besides Russia, the other reason why the 16-month-long crisis in Syria has dragged on is the failure of the international community, and in particular the UN, to find a solution to the crisis. The UN is facing criticism over its effectiveness and credibility as the massacres in Syria continue.
During Thursday's negotiations on the text when the outcome was still in doubt, US Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters, “We think it's very important that the council speak clearly and swiftly to condemn this shelling.” She added that this sort of cross-border military activity was very destabilizing and must be stopped.
Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, the head of Ankara's International Strategic and Security Research Center (USGAM), also agrees that there will no change in Russia's Syria policy, adding that Russia aimed to send a clear message to Syria by agreeing on the statement.
“Russia stands by the Syrian regime but also doesn't want to harm its strategic relations with Turkey. Russia's message is that ‘I am with you but you must not push your limits and harm my relations with Turkey.' Any step taken by Syria without the knowledge of Moscow can harm Russia's relations with Turkey. Russia doesn't want to have tense relations with Turkey due to Syria,” said Erol.
Russia made a surprising statement on Thursday, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for restraint, stating that Syria had told Russia that the mortar bomb attack on the Turkish border was accidental and would not be repeated, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
“Russia is very well aware of the perpetrator of the incident. So Russia needed to take a step to show its good will to Turkey. This step was to agree on the statement condemning Syria. Russia also wants to send a message to Syria that ‘if you harm my interests, I will support harsher statements in the council in the future,'” said Erol.
Russia has used its veto power three times in the Security Council to shield Syria from harsher international pressure, arguing firmly against military intervention.