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Syria's Double Diplomatic Muscle

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Harkening back to the grand old days of Sino-Soviet diplomatic chicanery, Moscow and Beijing yesterday jointly vetoed a watered-down United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Syria for its escalating brutality against democracy protestors. With the draft resolution in the diplomatic oven for months as violence throughout Syria escalated, the pitiful display of international indifference to the plight of the Syrian people says a lot about who is on what side of Arabs seeking greater freedom.

Memo to the Syrian people: It's Russian-built tanks and military aircraft which are targeting you.

While the UN loss was no surprise (given Russia's and China's joint aversion to UN/NATO mission creep in Libya) the double veto camouflages a more vexing development in the Eastern Mediterranean: a renewed effort by Russia's Vladimir Putin to reconsolidate a foot-hold in the Middle East against anti-democratic forces. Mr. "Managed Democracy" himself views democratic forces in the Arab world as a direct threat to Russia's suppression of its own ethnic regions in the Caucuses, including his continued machinations against an independent Georgia.

Other than for a brief interlude in the 1990s, Syria and the former Soviet Union have been tied at the hip. Whatever passes as "infrastructure" in Syria was largely constructed by Russian engineers, including the Euphrates Dam. Thousands of Syrians were sent to Moscow for military training over 5 decades. Much of Syria's energy infrastructure was built via Russian help. Syria's eastern Mediterranean port of Tartus was virtually turned over to the Soviets in 1971 (as is being expanded by the Russians now). Tafneft, a Russian energy company, is Syria's largest producer of natural gas.

For a brief time, bilateral relationships went on the back burner. Syria supported Saddam Hussein's eviction from Kuwait over Russian objections and the elder Hafez al Assad was a master playing the U.S. and Russia off against each other.

However, under Putin's first presidential term (and courtesy of a $10 billion debt forgiveness by Moscow) Russian military assistance to the younger Assad recommenced, and consequently Syria is one of Russia's largest arm purchasers in the region. Russia has poured MiG-29 fighters, solid fuel Iskander E ground-to-ground missiles capable of reaching every inch of Israel, SAM-300 ground to air missiles, sophisticated Kornet missiles, truck mounted Pantsir short-range surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery systems and anti-tank weapons into Syria -- some of which likely has been gifted to Hezbollah by the Assad regime.

Russian designs in Syria go far beyond arms exports. Putin is determined to use its support for Palestinian statehood to further diminish American regional influence, and views Assad as an important anti-American ally in his designs. From Putin's perspective, Assad's fall would also open Syria to civil war and a resurgence of Sunni-Islamic support for Russia's repressed Sunni-Islamic minorities.

Unconfirmed reports (yet nevertheless highly plausible) circulating in Turkey, from whence I just returned, indicate that Moscow has been secretly providing Bashar al Assad's regime with anti-riot equipment and training to suppress Syrian demonstrations.

China's interest in Syria is no different than China's interest in any other oil-producing country. Pure and simple, China wants Syria's oil. Beijing is not about to place its jealously guarded Syrian oil exports on the altar of human rights. China National Petroleum Company is the principal foreign joint venture partner with Syria's state-run oil company.

So, one may ask, what else is new? Russia and China are acting out of national interests... right? Absolutely! Don't we all? Not necessarily. There are inconvenient truths such as the UN Charter, international human rights treaties, and responsibilities that come with membership in such organizations at the G-"whatever number" today. From Moscow and Beijing -- conveniently ignored!

The rub is that the Syrian people are getting mowed down in Syrian cities by Syrian government military and para-military forces, and the double veto provides Assad more than a tasty diplomatic victory against his American and European adversaries. In the absence of any UN-imposed oil or arms embargo, Assad's regime could continue to have enough financial oxygen from oil exports and arms imports to survive longer than domestic events would dictate, i.e., more Russian and Chinese-sanctioned torture against innocent Syrians.

Moreover, the longer the regime survives, the more likely Syrians will resort to violence to confront the violence inflicted on them... ironically producing the potential for a dreaded civil war by recriminating Sunnis against minorities that sided with the Assad regime -- the very eventuality that Russia's Putin fears most. Is Putin that astute a chess player convinced he has less to lose by prolonging Syria's Assad-induced agony than risking a civil war that could spill over borders north toward Russia? Time will tell.

No matter. What happens in Syria will not stay in Syria. Emboldened by his UN victory, Assad boasted to visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Dovutoglu today that should NATO attack Syria, he would retaliate by starting a war with Israel and "instruct" Hezbollah to launch a massive missile strike on Israel and "direct" Iran to attack U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.

"Baby doc" Assad certainly has a lot of bravado these days for a marked man.