Battle to pressure Syria moves to UN nuclear watchdog

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters. (Illustration By Amarjit Sidhu)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters. (Illustration By Amarjit Sidhu)
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is getting more and more in debt to his Russian and Chinese counterparts.

For weeks, Russia and China have shielded Mr. Assad against condemnation by the United Nations Security Council for his brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters by blocking a resolution backed by the United States and Europe. They are now extending that protective shield to the UN nuclear watchdog by opposing a US push for the agency to report to the council Mr. Assad’s efforts to build a nuclear reactor.

Efforts to step up pressure on Mr. Assad are scheduled to come to a head at a meeting next week of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will discuss a US draft resolution to refer Syria to the Security Council for illicitly engaging in nuclear activity. By reporting Syria, the IAEA would open the door to the imposition of UN sanctions on Mr. Assad’s regime.
China and Russia oppose reporting Syria, noting that Mr. Assad’s government in a letter to the IAEA has agreed after almost four years to disclose its nuclear intentions. US officials said Syrian cooperation with the IAEA was welcome but did not dissolve the board of its responsibility to act.

Mr. Assad has benefited for the past three months in which his security forces have killed more than a 1,000 anti-government protesters from divisions in the international community that have prevented the United Nations from stepping up the pressure on his regime to halt its brutal crackdown. He is likely to again be spared stepped-up international pressure.

China and Russia, stung by what they see as NATO violations of a Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly-zone in Libya by seeking to oust Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi from power and concerned that their own populations could be inspired by the anti-authoritarian revolt gripping the Middle East and North Africa, oppose referring Syria to the Security Council.

The US and Europe see Syria’s alleged secret pursuit of nuclear capability as another opportunity to step up the heat on Mr. Assad without pushing for his departure.

The US and the EU have imposed sanctions of their own on Mr. Assad and his closest aids, but have stopped short of calling for his resignation in the hope that he can reinvent himself. Western nations fear that increasing turmoil in Syria could spill over into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and uncertain who might succeed Mr. Assad opt for the devil they know rather than the one they don’t.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday increased the pressure on Mr. Assad by a notch, saying that the position of his government was becoming “less tenable” with every day that passes.

“President Assad has a choice, and every day that goes by the choice is made by default. He has not called an end to the violence against his own people, and he has not engaged seriously in any kind of reform efforts,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Assad attempted unsuccessfully on Tuesday to placate his international critics and domestic opponents by declaring a general amnesty that would include members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and involve the reduction of sentences for certain crimes. Membership of the brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria. US officials and Syrian opposition figures dismissed the amnesty as too little, too late.

The US effort to persuade the IAEA to report Syria to the Security Council for non-compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is as much an effort to enforce nuclear non-proliferation as it is an opportunity to offer Mr. Assad a carrot to halt his crackdown on protesters and embark on a path of true political and economic change.

If the US gets its way in the IAEA, Syria would be the second state in recent years to be reported to the Security Council. The agency reported Iran, Syria’s closest ally, in 2005.

The battle over Syria in the IAEA focuses on Syria’s refusal to respond to allegations that it was building an undeclared nuclear reactor at a remote desert site at Dair Alzour until Israeli Air Force planes bombed it in September 2007.

Frustrated by Syrian stonewalling, the IAEA last week declared publicly for the first time that evidence suggested the bombed building was indeed a nuclear reactor. The IAEA statement implied but stopped short of saying explicitly that Syria had violated the NPT.

Syria has consistently insisted that the Israelis hit a non-nuclear military installation, but has provided no evidence to back up its claim.

Mr. Assad needs another problem in the Security Council like he needs a headache. Nonetheless, the Syrian leader has so far demonstrated that international sanctions are not about to persuade him to engage in power sharing rather than cling to absolute power at no matter what cost.

International outrage sparked by a video that shows a 13-year old boy who was allegedly tortured and mutilated before being killed by Syrian security forces is putting the United States and Europe under as much pressure to act more decisively to force Mr. Assad to put an end to his henchmen’s brutality as it is damaging the president’s already severely tarnished image.

For now, however, Mr. Assad appears to be winning the tug of war with China and Russia reflecting some of the heat and the US and Europe unwilling to rock his boat too much.


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