The decision by both China and Russia to veto the UN Security Council Resolution on Syria last week, supporting the Arab League plan for a swift transition of power and elections, has served noticed on the West by both countries that further interventions in the region will be opposed.
Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said, “Some influential members of the international community unfortunately have been undermining the opportunity for political settlement, calling for a regime change, pushing the oppositionists to power.”
Meanwhile, China’s UN ambassador Li Baodong said, “China maintains that, under the current circumstances, to put undue emphasis on pressuring the Syrian government… or impose any solution will not help resolve the Syrian issue.”
The response of the US UN ambassador Susan Rice to the veto was unsurprisingly scathing, describing it as “shameful”. She added that it showed how Russia and China aimed to “sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant.”
That the US UN ambassador felt justified in to seizing any moral high ground on the ‘shielding of craven tyrants’ when the US remains a major ally of Saudi Arabia, and up until recently was key in helping to maintain Mubarak in power in Egypt, is stark evidence of the hubris that continues to abound in Washington even after the humanitarian disaster precipitated by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the continuing quagmire in Afghanistan.
Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague was also bombastic in his response, saying that the Russian and Chinese veto “will only encourage President Assad’s brutal regime to increase the killing.”
What seems clear is that the Arab Spring which has swept through the Middle East in recent months, toppling autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and which has seen serious unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, has been actively joined by the US, France, Britain, and their regional allies in order to ensure that what emerges are pro-western regimes that will uphold their geopolitical interests in the region.
Providing further impetus in this regard has been the success of the NATO intervention in Libya, which proved to be a win-win in terms of the resources applied and its successful outcome. Indeed, the success of the Libyan operation has breathed new life into the concept of humanitarian intervention by the West – or to give it its old name, imperialism – with the prospect of unleashing the same template on Syria clearly a motivating factor in the UN Security Council resolution and its subsequent veto by Russia and China.
In fact the experience of Libya – when a UN Security Council resolution to protect innocent civilian life was subsequently transmuted into providing military support for one side in a civil war with the objective of regime change – will understandably have deepened the resolve of both China and Russia not to be caught out in this regard a second time.
Though the Cold War is no longer central to international affairs, there has been a resurgence of something akin to it in recent years, a result of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, Russia entering a new era of assertiveness vis-à-vis the West, and the West’s comparative economic decline leading to an increased reliance on hard power to maintain and advance its interests. The oil rich Middle East remains every bit as vital to each of the aforementioned power blocs, which is why what we are beginning to witness with regard to the region is a re-enactment of the Great Game that took place in the 19th century between the British and Russian empires. Then the prize was Central Asia and its strategic importance. Now it is oil.
The states that make up the region are currently undergoing seismic upheaval as the contradictions that have for so long defined their existence have burst asunder. This has come under the weight of a global economic crisis which has negatively impacted on their ability to rule in the old way, resulting on the one hand in an inspirational wave of people power rising up from below, and on the other a worrying resurgence of hard power being exercised by western powers, primarily the US, Britain and France, as they seek to place their stamp on its trajectory.
The Syrian government’s crime in the eyes of the West is not so much the repression being carried against a section of its people. Rather the crime is its close relations with Iran and the support it provides to Hamas and Hezbollah, both implacable foes of Israel, along with its history of opposition to the West. Toppling the Assad regime in Syria would significantly deepen the isolation of Iran, which is currently under immense economic, political, and increasingly military pressure to abandon its nuclear programme and is itself a future candidate for regime change.
The tragedy currently unfolding in Syria began as legitimate peaceful protest demanding long overdue reforms from the current regime. However, the unintended consequence of the West’s role in sowing chaos in Iraq and Libya is the Syrian regime’s adoption of lethal force against the Syrian opposition, with a view to destroying it before the West is able to intervene. On the other hand, the Syrian opposition is clearly banking on just such an intervention, following the template employed by the West when it came to Libya last year. It is also crucial for opponents of the present regime in Damascus to understand the extent to which it still enjoys the support of a large part of the country, thus ensuring that any western intervention would result in bloody chaos.
While the Syrian people are certainly justified in demanding reforms from a regime that for too long has placed an over emphasis on security at the expense of civil rights, the fear of the regime and the millions of Syrians who still support it of the country suffering a similar fate to that suffered by Iraq, with the same prospect of sectarian civil war, and the more recent disaster to befall the Libyan people, with verifiable accounts of widespread human rights abuses, torture and summary executions in the aftermath of the fall of the Gaddafi regime, is all too real and cannot be underestimated or easily dismissed.
This is why Russian and Chinese calls for a diplomatic solution in Syria must be taken seriously, especially as the Kremlin enjoys influence with the Syrian regime.
Clearly, Russia and China both have their own geopolitical and economic reasons for taking the stance they have, as do each of the regional and international actors involved. But the question for the people being affected on the ground by this crisis is how best to end the carnage and eruption of sectarian and confessional fissures that have come as a direct result of western intervention over the past decade.
More bloodshed is no solution to the blood already being shed in Syria.