There’s nothing shockingly surprising about Russia and China’s decision to veto a UN Security Council Resolution on Syria on Saturday night. Can China really go along with a resolution that calls to “put an end to all human rights violations and attacks against those exercising their rights to freedom of expression”? Would Russia “guarantee”, with straight face, “the freedom of peaceful demonstrations”?
Secretary of State Clinton sounded almost like a Bush appointee, as she rhetorically asked, “Are you on the side of the Syrian people? Are you on the side of the Arab League? Are you on the side of the people of the Middle East and North Africa who have during his past year spoken out courageously and often for their rights? Are you on the side of a brutal dictatorial regime?”
However, while one is free to be impressed by the strong words uttered by western officials after the vote was cast (it was “shameful”, the US was “disgusted”), such statements don’t change realities, they are the reflection of a frustrating reality: The UN is not the body through which such crises can be solved, and the Security Council is not the forum one can lead from behind. Not when the stakes are high. And this time they are high on at least three counts:
1. Russia and China do not want to encourage international intervention in the internal affairs of repressive regimes. This is nothing new. The two chose to abstain when a resolution against Libya’s regime was on the table, and seem to regret that decision. With Syria they have an opportunity to make sure their position is once again cleared.
2. Arab Spring spirit would make these countries even less likely to support intervention. For more details, try John McCain’s statements here).
3. The issue of Syria can hardly be separated from the issue of Iran. Russia and China oppose sanctions on Iran and oppose the resolution on Syria. In other words: Both have decided to put their chips on the Iranian-led wagon, and interfere with all attempts to curb Iranian power.
Some American officials believe that point No. 3 makes the Syria question one of strategic importance to the US, and not just a matter of defending human rights in Syria. China and Russia are playing the Iran-Syria card, while interestingly, most Arab countries side with the US and Europe against the Assad regime and, more cautiously, against Tehran. However, for such alliance to stick together the west must act or lose credibility – it must prove that sticking with it is wiser than sticking with the other group. And for such alliance to be able to convince Israel that options other than attack are still available in regards to Iran – it has to show some muscle on Syria, to prove that international action can still work, and can be effective even when both China and Russia aren’t willing to play along.
In other words: There are some officials in Jerusalem who do not care much whether Assad stays or goes (and some might even prefer that Assad is not forced out), but who do pay attention to this demonstration of international impotence and draw pessimistic conclusions from it. Put it more bluntly: The failure of the Security Council to condemn Syria might raise the likelihood of violent action in Iran.