This weekend the UN Security Council voted on a Syria resolution, and my prediction of success in passing one was 100% wrong. Both Russia and China vetoed it. Then a frustrated Hillary Clinton went off and said the Security Council was “neutered,” which is rather provocative, gendered and dated language for a usually level-headed diplomat. She suggested forming an international coalition outside the UN instead, not for military intervention but to support the Syrian opposition. Presumably this could include supporting the Free Syrian Army with arms and supplies?
By contrast, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seemed more sensible; he said: “This is a great disappointment to the people of Syria and the Middle East, and to all supporters of democracy and human rights. It undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people.” As the drama unfolded in New York, violence in Syria escalated sharply. Government attacks sought to retake neighborhoods and towns controlled by the opposition. Hundreds more civilians were reported killed.
A lot is at stake here. We could go back and try again to work with Russia and China through the UN, or we could go to a coalition of the willing to help overthrow the Assad regime. It’s important to get it right. I have pretty much nothing good to say about the Syrian regime, but we should think carefully about Russia and China’s positions.
When the UN works, it can impede bad ideas that individual countries or groups of countries come up with. History looms large for the Syrian case, with both Iraq and Libya very much on Russian and Chinese minds. Nine years ago the United States came to the UN to demand action to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Then as now the secretary of state showed up in person, Colin Powell waving around a test tube of white powder that was supposed to represent Saddam’s terrifying weapons of mass destruction. The Security Council refused to approve action to overthrow the Iraqi government, the United States formed a coalition of the wiling and did it anyway, and it turned out to be an extremely costly, painful mistake.
In the UN, the great powers act as a form of checks and balances on each other. Just as in the U.S. government, this diffusion of power is frustrating in terms of getting anything done. But currently there is no better system. This is the same system, by the way, that lets the United States veto resolutions critical of Israel, yet I’ve never heard American officials say they were neutering the UNSC in doing so.
If one country uses a veto, it’s easy to dismiss it, but when Russia and China both say no to something, we need to pay attention to their reasons. Their fundamental reasoning here was that the international community should not violate the sovereignty of a UN member to overthrow its government, especially when several Middle East regimes have already been toppled in recent years by the United States and its allies. Russia and China also see hypocrisy in western accusations against Syria’s government, when no action was sought against a U.S. ally in Bahrain that violently repressed its own uprising last year.
Russia and China also complain about Libya. Last year, the western powers asked for authorization of a no-fly zone to protect civilians imminently threatened by the Gaddafi regime. The UNSC said yes, and the western powers then stretched that authority into support for rebel forces battling Gaddafi. They won, Libya was spared a prolonged civil war, and the intervention turned out to be a good idea. Russia and China now say they were burned by allowing a resolution that the West would stretch, and won’t repeat the mistake in Syria. But there’s more to it than that. Syria is not Libya, and they are less comfortable with an effort to oust the government there.
Why is Syria not Libya? First, the Libyan strongman was nobody’s friend, so nobody particularly cared about his fate. In Syria, Assad may be behaving badly but Russia would lose a friend (and possibly a naval base) if Assad were overthrown. Second, in Libya the rebels were already in all-out armed conflict with the government, with control of a substantial territory. There was no question of averting a civil war. In Syria, the country is moving quickly toward a civil war but still the Free Syrian Army cannot permanently hold territory and much of the opposition is not armed. Third, Libya was isolated from the regional politics of the Sunni-Shi’ite and Arab-Israeli conflicts. Syria is in the middle of both. When the Arab League acts against Syria, there is an element of Sunni countries rallying against a Shi’ite-affiliated regime that oppresses its Sunni majority. By contrast, the Arab League call for action in Libya last year did not have any such element.
And then Russia and China have to be influenced by their feelings about recent U.S. actions that have almost seemed to gratuitously “dis” these two great powers. U.S. officials continue to extend their influence in Eastern Europe, making former Soviet allies into NATO members (Clinton spoke while in Bulgaria); they base new missile defenses near Russia; they give publicity and moral support to Vladimir Putin’s domestic opponents; and they back “independent” Kosovo (not recognized by Russia) which was wrested from Russian ally Serbia by military force more than a decade ago.
On the Chinese side, U.S. officials talk up a “pivot” from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Pacific, where they describe plans to beef up military capabilities to confront a rising China; they also continue to sell arms to Taiwan despite their formal recognition of Taiwan as part of China; and they constantly attack China’s currency and trade policies as though U.S.-China trade were a zero-sum game.
These U.S. policies may each make sense — I’m not judging them substantively here — but you can see how from a Russian or Chinese perspective the cumulative effect seems hostile and aggressive. Then the United States asks China to help with North Korea and Russia with Iran, to control dangerous nuclear proliferation that probably poses a greater threat to American security than any of the above issues. It doesn’t make sense.
So now the United States and its friends put a resolution on the table calling for Assad to leave power and the formation of a transitional government. After watering it down by eliminating economic sanctions and explicit calls for Assad to leave, the resolution still supported the Arab League plan, which calls for Assad’s departure. Russia and China still opposed it. At that point, the western powers had a choice — water it down further until Russia and China came on board, or push to a vote and make Russia and China veto it. They chose the latter. As the New York Times reported, “The resolution’s Western and Arab sponsors said they had compromised enough, and pushed the measure to a vote, virtually daring Russia to exercise its veto and risk international condemnation.” So that’s great, we can condem Russia. But Syrians might have been better served by a resolution that could pass, one that condemed the Syrian government’s violence and demanded that the Assad regime stop.
I wish China had not vetoed this resolution, but I can see some arguments on their side to take seriously. Looking forward, China wants to see negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition. The opposition currently says it will not negotiate while the killing goes on, but I hope they change their mind about that. The armed opposition in Syria has little chance of prevailing in a civil war, barring the kind of direct military help from the West that just isn’t going to happen. Another bit of history hanging over the scene is the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. officials encouraged an uprising by Iraqi Shi’ites that was repressed with extreme violence while we stood by.
In Syria today, the worst U.S. policy would be one that encourages the opposition to use armed struggle but fails to back them up with effective military force, alienates the Russians and Chinese (whose help we need elsewhere), weakens the UN, and does not induce Assad to reduce or end his killing spree. Yet that seems to be the policy path we are on at the moment. Outrage at Assad’s mass killing is justified; now what can we do effectively to address it? Take a deep breath before answering that. Let’s get it right.