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Why Are Beijing and Moscow Backing Bashar?

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Most Western press reports and pundits characterized Wednesday's suicide bombing that killed three top Syrian military-security officials (a fourth succumbed to his wounds later) as a deathblow to Bashar al-Assad's government. The Obama administration seemed to concur.

With fighting raging in Damascus's neighborhoods and suburbs and an increasing number of Syrians fleeing the country, the tide does seem to have turned in the long war between Assad's forces and a motley, but increasingly potent, insurgency. The claim that the regime is in its death throes has thus become common.

Yet this prognosis may be premature -- and it is evidently not shared by China and Russia.

The day after the dramatic assassinations, both countries vetoed a Security Council resolution drafted by Britain that called for sanctions against Syria under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, proving that that their policy of preventing externally induced regime change in Syria would persist. And it is a policy because this latest veto is their third, the two others having been cast in October and February.

What explains China and Russia's decision to back a regime that's begun to look like it's living on borrowed time?

Most answers focus on Russia (with Putin's return as president, it has been the more vocal in criticizing Western moves to unseat Assad) and point to the longstanding and tight relationship between Russia and Syria, emphasizing more specifically Syria's importance as a buyer of Russian arms and the strategic value of Tartus port to the Russian Navy.

This ubiquitous explanation is flawed.

Syria relies heavily on Russian weapons, but it isn't a major customer like Algeria, China, India, and Vietnam. Nor is it likely to become one considering that by 2005 its debt to Russia totaled over $13 billion and that Moscow ended up forgiving three-quarters of it.

As for Tartus, it's scarcely comparable to bases the United States uses worldwide. It provides some floating dry-docks and is a repair and replenishment facility that hosts a small number of Russian personnel. Moreover, the Russian Navy is a shadow of its Soviet forerunner, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Tartus enables it to show the flag and gather intelligence, but the idea that it could support naval battles is farfetched.

The standard explanation's biggest flaw, though, is that it can't explain why China has been in sync with Russia on Syria. There's no Chinese base in Syria, Syria matters even less to China as an arms buyer, and Syria accounts for a tiny percentage of China's trade, just as it does Russia's.

Beijing and Moscow have stood by Assad's government for six other reasons

First, neither has yet concluded that it is doomed. It has managed to survive for 16 months now; despite some recent defections it has not been depleted by a stream of high-level ones; and there has been no evidence that the military and security services are abandoning it or are unraveling, notwithstanding that the regime is dominated by the Alawite minority and that Syria has a Sunni majority. This assessment of Assad's staying power has become questionable, but that's beside the point: it's what China and Russia believe.

Second, while they have not ruled out an external solution to Syria's war, Beijing and Moscow insist that a ceasefire agreement must require both the government and the insurgents to pull back their forces and that Assad's departure must not be a precondition. The latter point may reflect their belief that his precipitous exit would cause the regime to implode and that a preferable solution, because it would keep them in the game, is one that involves some elements of his government, though not necessarily him.

Third, China and Russia believe that America's primary motivation is not to fashion a settlement in Syria but to effect regime change and, in the meantime, to erode their political standing in the Arab world by castigating them for backing a blood-soaked Assad.

Fourth, Chinese and Russian leaders think that Washington and its allies have embraced the Syrian opposition without knowing much about it, its plans for Syria, or even whether there it is united by a common political vision. They therefore reject the contention implicit in American (and European) statements that stability will follow if only Assad would agree to step down.

Fifth, both China and Russia, especially the latter, face rebellions in their Muslim-populated areas -- China in Xinjiang in the far northwest, Russia in its North Caucasus republics that lie between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Afghanistan's future is in doubt and Islamic groups still operate in Central Asia. Now Moscow and Beijing behold an Arab world in which, thanks to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties and movements have become an influential force. This context increases their apprehension about the Islamist orientation of some groups within the Syrian opposition.

Sixth, China and Russia have long been suspicious of ideas, such as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), that are designed to empower the UN to end large-scale violence within countries, using military means, even if as a last resort. Both states support a strict conception of sovereignty, the foundation of which is opposition to external interference in countries' internal affairs on human rights grounds. Their own records on democracy and civil liberties leave much to be desired and both are facing increasing public protests on the home front, so this stance is a self-interested one.

True, China and Russia didn't veto the Security Council's March no-flight zone resolution on Libya, but, as they see it, a measure ostensibly adopted to protect civilians ended up enabling a campaign that ousted Muammar Gaddafi through active outside assistance to the armed opposition. That experience has increased their determined to prevent UN-sanctioned measures aimed at toppling Bashar.

Because none of the six reasons will change, there's little chance of China and Russia joining forces with the US, France, and Britain in the Security Council. Yet no outside effort to end Syria's bloodbath will succeed without Beijing and Moscow's involvement.

If it really wants the cooperation of China and Russia, the Obama administration should stop its serial public scoldings of Russia in particular.

Harangues may win political points and provide catharsis, but they won't increase the already slim chances for a multilateral settlement. And the alternative may be to bet the house that Bashar's regime is on its last legs -- and to hope that peace and stability follow its demise.