Britain, France and the United States expect the UN Security Council will approve a tough resolution demanding that Syria co-operate with the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Ahead of today’s vote, foreign ministers from the three countries dined with their counterparts from Russia and China who oppose the resolution’s threat of sanctions if Syria refuses to cooperate with probe.
The dinner last night at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, hosted by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, provided a last chance for the five permanent veto-wielding council members to discuss the resolution.
The United States, France and Britain co-sponsored the resolution to follow up last week’s report by a UN investigating commission which implicated top Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the February 14 bombing in Beirut that killed Hariri and 20 others and accused Syria of not co-operating fully with the probe.
US Ambassador John Bolton said the resolution had the nine “yes” votes required for approval, and will likely have more by the time of the vote. “I don’t foresee a veto,” he said, a view echoed by his French and British co-sponsors.
But council diplomats said that if Washington, Paris and London want to get unanimous support from all 15 council nations – which would send a more powerful message to Syria – they will have to drop the sanctions threat.
Otherwise, the resolution will likely be adopted with 12 “yes” votes and three abstentions – by Russia, China, and Algeria, a non-permanent council member and its only Arab representative, the diplomats said.
There was no immediate word from the five ministers on their two-hour dinner meeting attended by Rice, Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, China’s Li Zhaoxing, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and France’s Philippe Douste-Blazy.
Lavrov and Li, who met alone for about 45 minutes before the dinner, refused to say how they will vote today. “Just wait and see,” said Li.
Russia said last week it opposed sanctions against Syria, its long-time ally.
Late yesterday, Lavrov said that Russia fully backed a further UN probe into Hariri’s murder, but criticised what he described as attempts to turn the Security Council into an investigative body.
“We are concerned that the draft resolution’s co-authors are not just trying to support the commission, but also to meddle into its sphere of responsibility,” Lavrov told Russian reporters in comments broadcast by Russia’s Channel One television. “But the Security Council isn’t an investigative body, and it would be wrong to mix mechanisms of criminal investigation and international relations.”
The United States urged foreign ministers of all 15 Security Council nations to go to New York for the vote to send a high-level message to Damascus that the international community was demanding its cooperation with the probe – and almost all the ministers were going.
Britain’s UN Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said that adoption of the resolution by foreign ministers “is to show the intensity of the concern, and to make it very clear at the highest level what we expect”.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa also flew to New York yesterday to attend the council meeting and meet with some of the foreign ministers and Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The latest draft would require Syria to detain anyone the UN investigators considered a suspect and let investigators determine the location and conditions under which the individual would be questioned. It would freeze assets and impose a travel ban on anyone identified as a suspect by the commission.
If Syria does not fully cooperate with the investigation, the draft says the council intends to consider “further measures,” including sanctions, “to ensure compliance by Syria”.
As al-Sharaa headed to New York, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moallem toured Gulf countries in what appeared to be an effort to rally Arab support ahead of today’s council meeting.
Syria’s official news agency, SANA, quoted Moallem as saying he was bearing a message from President Bashar Assad to the leaders of Gulf countries concerning “the dangers Syria faces” as a result of the UN action.
Moallem visited Saudi Arabia ON Saturday, where he delivered a message from Assad to King Abdullah “on the current situation in the region ... and the debate under way in the Security Council concerning the (Hariri) investigation,” SANA said.
Moallem travelled to Qatar yesterday where he told reporters that the resolution was prepared in Washington, Paris and London prior to the release of the report by the UN investigation.
SANA quoted him as saying the resolution was “dangerous” and aimed at hurting Syria, not uncovering the truth in the Hariri assassination. But Moallem said that Syria will “continue to cooperate” with the UN investigation despite “legal and political gaps in its report.”
On Saturday, Assad ordered that a judicial committee be formed to investigate Hariri’s assassination.
The announcement, which could be aimed at deflecting heat over accusations that Syria hasn’t been fully co-operating with UN efforts to find Hariri’s killers, follows Mehlis’ call for Syria to conduct its own investigation into the assassination to help “fill in the gaps” about who orchestrated the terrorist act.
A presidential decree said the new committee will cooperate with Mehlis’ investigation commission and Lebanese judicial authorities.
While Syria has rejected accusations of its involvement in Hariri’s killing, it did buckle under international pressure and withdrew its soldiers from Lebanon in April, ending a 29-year presence in its smaller neighbour.