Last Saturday, thirteen of the fifteen diverse member states of the United Nations Security Council voted to support the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom. Their initiative was vetoed by Russia and China.
Russia and China are widely believed to have an undeclared agreement to oppose attempts by the other members of the Security Council to constrain dictatorial regimes from abusing their people. Their main motivation for pursuing this policy of “non-interference” is to avoid precedents being created that could hinder them in crushing their own domestic protest movements. This concern is particularly acute for the Putin government in Russia, which was the prime mover in blocking action against the Syrian regime. It is currently facing unprecedented opposition at home that threatens to disrupt the stage-managed presidential “election” it has scheduled for 3rd March.
Apart from wanting to preserve the sovereign right to shoot demonstrators, the Putin government has other reasons for protecting its odious Syrian counterpart. The Russian arms industry is closely connected to the corrupt establishment that controls Russia and Syria is one of the few reliable customers for its products. The next Syrian government may well decide to look elsewhere for its armaments. Similarly, Russia’s Mediterranean naval base at Tartus in Syria is unlikely to survive a change of regime in Damascus.
On a wider level, the global power that Russia inherited from the Cold War era hangs by two threads - its permanent membership of the UN Security Council and its nuclear arsenal. It judges that this power is best preserved by carving out a distinctive role on the Security Council. This usually boils down to taking the opposite position to whatever the US and its allies propose, forcing them to make concessions to Russia in order to pass resolutions.
Worse still for the Russians, it may also be that other leaders are fed-up with Russia’s cynical game playing and are less inclined to humour Putin’s regime
Russia also sees the Asad regime as its last ally in the Middle East. By exposing itself as Asad’s protector, it may have made this a self-fulfilling prophecy in a region that is turning towards democracy. The UN Security Council Resolution that Russia vetoed was in fact instigated by the Arab League, not the Western powers. The latter’s main role was to dilute the text in the forlorn hope of attracting Russian (and, by extension, Chinese) support. Anger at Russia in blocking steps to help the Syrian people is at least as pronounced in the Arab world as in the West.
The outcome of Russia’s cynicism is evident for all to see on the ground in Syria. The Asad regime has taken Russia’s obstruction of UN action as a signal to dispense with what little restraint it was previously exercising. Residential areas, notably in Homs, are being starved of food supplies and bombarded with heavy weapons, killing unarmed civilians in even greater numbers than before. Faced with this desperate situation and Russian and Chinese obstruction of non-violent sanctions, other countries in the region will now be tempted to supply the Syrian opposition with arms, thus ensuring the onset of full-scale civil war.
In what may be an attempt to mitigate the damage Russia has done to its own interests, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has rushed to Damascus to offer mediation in the conflict. Clearly, genuine mediation cannot be carried out by someone with so little credibility as a neutral broker. But it is just about plausible that Lavrov may have been instructed by Putin to salvage a diplomatic success, and Russia’s reputation, from the debacle by telling Asad that nothing more can be done to defend his regime and that it is time to arrange his departure. The problem is that Russia does not have much to offer Asad and his acolytes in terms of an escape route. After perpetrating so much corruption and bloodshed, the Asad clan has trapped itself into having to cling to power as the only way to protect itself against legal or more direct retribution.
Unless Lavrov does achieve something uncharacteristically remarkable, this leaves the situation for the Syrian people at a horrific impasse. No outside power is willing to intervene militarily to defend them against Asad’s forces because Syria is geographically and socially too complex for such an intervention to succeed. And now that Russia and China have handicapped the chances of exerting peaceful external pressure on the regime, the prospect for the immediate future is one of ongoing atrocities.
Lavrov has described much of the world’s reaction to Russia’s machinations as “hysterical”. Perhaps. But the disgust at Russia’s conduct is genuine. Worse still for the Russians, it may also be that other leaders are fed-up with Russia’s cynical game playing and are less inclined to humour Putin’s regime now that they sense that it too has reached the beginning of its end.
In May last year Paul Knott wrote this article. Forget Libya and Egypt, Syria is the really scary one...
As an Egyptian friend remarked to me recently, Syria is “the really scary one” in the Middle East. Its Baathist regime is built on violence, fear and ruthlessness. The ruling elite is unified, stands to lose everything if it is overthrown and is willing to spill a lot of its opponents’ blood to keep itself in power. This does not necessarily mean it will succeed in clinging on. Whether it does so or not is important for the rest of the region and the wider world.
Since Bashar al-Asad succeeded his scheming, hard-nut father, Hafez al-Asad, as President of Syria in 2000, many in the West have fallen for the claim that he is a gentle reformist. This delusion appears to have been based on the notion that a London-trained ophthalmologist with a Vogue-friendly wife could not possibly turn out to be a brutal dictator. In reality, Bashar’s record shows that he is simply a more PR-savvy chip off the old block. Despite some vague rhetoric, Bashar has made no significant reforms since becoming President and has perpetuated the vicious police state bequeathed by his father, run for the benefit of his family and associates. Click here to read the full article...
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