Thursday, October 6, 2011

A U.N. veto buys Bashar time to kill

For a brief moment, Lebanon can say that it behaved relatively courageously in comparison to Russia and China at the United Nations. On Tuesday, Moscow and Beijing vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria, arguing that the text, in the words of the Russian envoy, “was based on a philosophy of confrontation.”

Lebanon had little choice. As the Arab representative on the council, its decision reflected the discord in the Arab world over Syria. Abstention was the logical outcome of the region’s treacherous cross-currents. However, in light of the Russia and Chinese votes against, Syria cannot have been overjoyed with the non-committal Lebanese attitude. You have to wonder if the Syrian army’s brief incursion into Arsal on the day of the voting was not, partly, a warning to Beirut.

What bothered the Russians and Chinese was that the resolution threatened retaliation against Damascus if the violence in Syria continued. The draft did not mention “sanctions,” to satisfy Moscow, replacing it with the more ambiguous “targeted measures.” Responding to claims that the resolution would lead to military action in Syria, as it had in Libya, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice was scathing. She called such worries a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”

In a way Rice was right. A September report in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail indicated that Chinese arms companies negotiated contracts worth some $200 million in the past months with the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. This violated Resolution 1970, approved by China, which imposed an arms embargo on the Libyan government. However, Rice was less convincing in implying that Washington stood staunchly with the Syrian people. It took months for the Obama administration to do anything of substance on Syria, with officials complaining that the United States had little leverage in Damascus.

As with much else, this outlook showed President Barack Obama at his self-neutralizing best. Political leverage is something built up over time, patiently. Only the U.S. stands at the center of the network of countries with a say in Syria – the Arab states, Turkey, the permanent U.N. Security Council members, and the European Union. If anyone can bring all the pieces together to fashion a consensual stance toward Syria that persuades the regime to depart, it is the United States.

This does not diminish the cravenness of Russia and China. Both saw an opportunity to abort international momentum in favor of using humanitarian arguments to intervene in the Middle East and North Africa, where the two have political and economic stakes. Moscow and Beijing know that they are fated to follow when humanitarianism beckons, wedded as they are to political realism, which enjoins pursuing one’s interests abroad without worrying about the domestic abuses of the regimes with which they are transacting.

This is short-sighted. Modern communications mean that the outrages of brutal leaders are out there for all to see, on television screens, computers and mobile telephones. The old realism, which accepts an artificial barrier between a partner’s foreign affairs and his internal behavior, is no longer as tolerable as it once was. When Syrians routinely burn Russian and Chinese flags in the streets of their cities, that means there will be reckoning down the road, when the foul edifice of the Assads collapses, as it is destined to.

President Bashar Assad will appreciate what Russia and China did for him. However, it may little change things. At this stage the dynamics in Syria appear to be increasingly beyond the reach of foreign actors – which is precisely why the international community and the Arab states in particular are blameworthy for having dawdled on Syria, so eager was everyone to wish the problem away. Whatever Moscow and Beijing do, there is no repressive solution to the Syrian crisis. On the other hand, both have just ensured that Assad gets enough spare oxygen so that his security forces and armed gangs can murder more people – even as this heightens the prospect that the protesters will move toward further militarization of their revolt against Assad rule.

Was it a good idea to go for a vote in the Security Council, despite the likelihood of Russian and Chinese vetoes? Yes. We have to accept that none but the most anodyne text would have been approved by Moscow and Beijing, which would have surely discredited the council far more than disagreement over a stronger resolution. Still, the U.N. is indeed deeply divided over Syria. At a time when its secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has gone commendably far in denouncing Bashar Assad and his methods, the capacity of the international body to mediate in the Syrian upheaval has been substantially reduced.

If the U.N. cannot address Syria effectively, individual states will fill the vacuum. Turkey played an essential role by hosting the founding session of the new representative council of the Syrian opposition, and soon intends to impose sanctions on Syria, after an arms embargo. Other governments are expanding sanctions already in place. The pressure is hurting. Last week Syria’s government suspended the importation of goods with tariffs above 5 percent, to avoid the flight of hard currency. However, when Syrian traders complained, the government backtracked. But to have taken that step in the first place, and risk alienating those whose support is indispensable for the regime’s survival, showed how reckless Bashar Assad and those around him have become.

The situation in Syria will take a long time before clarifying. Russia and China are betting on the opposition’s exhaustion, or perhaps on a shift in the balance of power, granting them room to address a new Security Council resolution under improved conditions. Whatever is the thinking, many Syrians will not forgive them their cynicism.

1 comment:

diana s. hamilton said...

Excellent explanation of the present situation. I am glad that this time the Syrian people put the blame squarely on the Chinese and Russian gov. and not on the Israeli gov.