UNITED NATIONS—Nikki Haley, the new (or “fresh,” as she’s often described here) American Ambassador at the United Nations had been seen by Turtle Bay insiders as more of a star politician than detail-oriented diplomacy wonk.
That may have changed Wednesday, when Haley acted as the president of the UN Security Council for the month of April at a moment of major international crisis. In an emergency session, she hinted that America could act unilaterally if the council failed to meaningfully address a horrific and deadly chemical attack in Syria.
She also inserted a particularly poignant paragraph to a proposed council resolution. If adopted by the 15-members, that provision could create a world of trouble to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and particularly to military officials responsible for the attack at Khan Shaykhun, an area in the southern part of Syria’s Idlib province.
Syria denied it was responsible for the deaths of at least 70 people, including many children, in the Tuesday bombing, widely believed to involve a chemical agent like sarin.
Russian officials suggested the attack was the result of a bombing in an area where “terrorists” stockpiled chemical munitions, possibly stolen from Iraq or Syria. Western diplomats dismissed that explanation as unlikely, explaining that a bombing on a chemical munition factory, depending on the agent, would have either produced large fires and result in a much higher death toll or destroy the chemical without creating any harm at all.
In her speech, Haley produced two posters of choking children, mouths foaming, their near-naked bodies sweating. She dared the council to stay mum, as her folksy, southern politician style turns solemn. Months of futile diplomatic activity to end the six-year war have failed, she said, because “Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace.”
And then she tacked an ominous line near the end of her speech: “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
Speculation followed: Was she talking about unilateral military action? Did she hint at imposing U.S. sanctions that would cripple Syria’s access to the world’s major banks? Is America about to enter the fray in the most consequential war of the 21st century?
Or was she just daring Russia—whose deputy ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, told the council that there’s “no particular need” for a new resolution?
“I’m sure this got the attention of the Russians and the Chinese,” a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named so he can speak freely, told The Daily Beast. He referred to two of the council permanent members with veto powers, who had used their “no” vote seven times before to shield Assad from diplomatic rebuke.
Hours before the council met Wednesday morning, the council's three other permanent members—the United States, Britain and France—circulated a draft resolution that would condemn Tuesday’s attack in Khan Shaykhun and call on international bodies to investigate it.
According to two sources, U.S. diplomats provided the most effective punch in that resolution—its paragraph 5, which emphasized the Syrian regime’s “obligation” to cooperate with inspectors.
That paragraph demanded Syria provide inspectors with “flight plans, flight logs and any other information on air operations” on the day of the attack. It also called on the regime to fork over names of relevant helicopter squadrons’ commanders, account for their superiors' activities five days prior to the attack and allow access to relevant airfields.
In short, paragraph five demanded that Damascus hand over members of the Syrian army who, if found complicit, had committed what several council members and American officials dubbed a “war crime.”
A diplomat who is not on the council speculated that the tough paragraph may have been an attempt to raise stakes, so Russia, which has consistently defended the Assad regime at the Security Council, would agree to a less demanding resolution, breaking the string of “no” votes and the council's inaction.
Mid-afternoon diplomats said Russia had proposed its own resolution text, starting either a prolonged negotiation toward a Thursday morning at the earliest, or dead end that would end in a veto or no resolution at all.
But it was talk of a possible unilateralism that raised hopes among some in the Arab Middle East, who had lost heart after the previous administration failed to act in August 2013, when an even larger chemical attack in Syria crossed what President Obama defined at the time as an American “red line.”
“President Trump should now sit with Putin and lay new red lines, saying that America will go in if Assad crosses them,” Yemen’s ambassador at the UN, Khaled Alyemani, told me. He added that Trump may be in a better position to act if Assad crossed his line than Obama was in 2013.
He expressed big expectations in several corners of the world, hoping for a return to a more active America in world affairs. "We need an America that is seriously committed to a solution in Syria," Francois Delattre, France's UN ambassador told reporters.
The Idlib attack “had a big impact on me,” Trump said Wednesday, adding, “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed.” But he would not tip his hand and, as before, extolled the virtue of unpredictability in international affairs, telling reporters he wouldn’t reveal his plans publicly.
With threats of fund-cutting and calls to change Turtle Bay’s old ways, Haley almost instantly became the UN’s most feared presence. But she is yet to score a major diplomatic breakthrough. True, it’s early in her tenure, but the Syria crisis is a test: will leap forward, adding action to her high profile as the most visible member of Trump's foreign policy team, or will she sink into the UN ways of recrimination and deadlock?