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Smoke rises following an Israeli strike on smuggling tunnels along the border between Egypt and Rafah southern Gaza Strip, Nov. 21, 2012. (Eyad Baba/AP)

Smoke rises following an Israeli strike on smuggling tunnels along the border between Egypt and Rafah southern Gaza Strip, Nov. 21, 2012.

(Eyad Baba/AP)

Mark Leon Goldberg

In the Gaza standoff, Russians suddenly have the upper hand Add to ...

Events on the ground are moving swiftly in Gaza, as Israel and Hamas approach a tentative ceasefire . So too is diplomacy at the United Nations, where the newest flareup of conflict in Gaza is exposing some old rivalries and reversing the old relationship between major powers.

The story begins in March, 2011, as violence in Syria sharply escalated. For the next 20 months, Russia played the spoiler to American-led attempts to condemn Syrian President Bashar al Assad at the UN Security Council.

Russia has historic and military ties to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, so it has been reluctant to go along with the rest of the Council – and most of the rest of the world – in pressuring Mr. Assad to end the war or give up power. Russia has cast three Security Council vetoes (with China) preventing any sort of punitive measures aimed at Mr. Assad, drawing condemnation from the United States.

And now the Gaza flare-up gives Moscow the opportunity to return the favour and force the United States to cast an embarrassing veto for an unpopular cause. Moscow seems to be relishing the opportunity to reverse roles .

“One member of the Security Council, I’m sure you can guess which, indicated quite transparently that they will not be prepared to go along with any reaction of the Security Council. Somehow, allegedly, that would hurt the current efforts carried out by Egypt in the region,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, told reporters on Monday. He further accused the unnamed country of “filibustering.”

As a general rule, the permanent members of the Security Council do what they can to avoid casting a veto. Such an action is a demonstration of the diplomatic isolation of the veto-wielding country and shows the country to be on the unpopular side of an issue. (A resolution needs 9 affirmative votes to pass and no vetoes). Because of this dynamic, vetoes are rather rare.

But sometimes countries are backed into a corner and forced to show their hand. From a Russian perspective, this is precisely what the United States and the other Western countries did to Moscow when they demanded Security Council votes to condemn Mr. Assad. Though most of the world (including, crucially, the Arab League) sided with the United States and Europe, Russia still stubbornly blocked the Syrian resolutions.

And so it was that on Tuesday, the United States blocked a Moroccan-drafted Security Council statement calling for a cessation of hostilities in Gaza.

The United States wanted the statement to specifically cite Hamas rocket attacks as being the root cause of this current crisis, which was a step beyond what other members were willing to say. As the Moroccan text was being drafted, the Russians crafted their own proposal which at time of publication does not meet the U.S. demand to cite Hamas as the root cause of the problem. Unlike the Moroccan text, the Russian draft is a formal resolution, meaning that if put to a vote the United States, wishing to defend Israel, may be forced to cast a veto.

Because there was movement toward a possible ceasefire on Tuesday, the Russians held back in calling for a vote on their resolution. However, if the tentative agreement fails to materialize the Russians could very well put forward a resolution demanding a ceasefire.

If that resolution calls on Hamas to halt its rocket attacks, chances are that most of the Council would back the resolution – even if fails to cite Hamas as the “root cause” of the violence. That would leave the United States in the position of either voting for the resolution and formally endorsing a ceasefire, or vetoing the resolution out of principle, even though American officials are currently on record calling for a de-escalation of the violence.

On the other hand, if a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel takes hold, it is reasonable to expect the Security Council to formally endorse the ceasefire. Even then, however, the Security Council may have a tough time passing a resolution.

As the monitoring group Security Council Report notes, “the same dynamics that made it difficult to agree to a press statement expressing concern over the escalation of violence may similarly hinder the possibility of a timely agreement on welcoming a truce.” In other words, the United States may be reluctant to formally endorse a Gaza ceasefire resolution that does not also contain some of its maximalist demands.

This is a weak hand for the United States, and Russia knows it. If the United States does not moderate this position, it may face some very tough votes at the Security Council in the coming days.

Mark Leon Goldberg is the managing editor of the website UN Dispatch , which chronicles the United Nations and international diplomacy, and is on Twitter at @MarkLGoldberg .


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