The Russia-China Veto: What Next for Syria?

02/06/2012 10:49 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2012
  • Rajan Menon Spitzer Professor of Political Science, Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York; Non Resident Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council

The dual-veto cast by Russia and China that blocked Saturday's delicately-worded U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to stop its crackdown and facilitate "a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system" through negotiations with the opposition was unsurprising. In the run-up to the vote, Moscow had been blunt about its opposition to any resolution enabling an intrusion into what it considers Syria's internal affairs; China was on the same wavelength, albeit less vocal. For experts who assert that international norms against mass killing are now so robust that they restrain pitiless governments, the impunity with which Bashar's deadly juggernaut has operated almost non-stop for eleven months must be dismaying. So must the determination with which Beijing and Moscow have thwarted Western efforts to extend the U.N.'s imprimatur to efforts aimed at achieving a negotiated settlement between the Ba'ath regime and the opposition. The power of states remains robust, and the governments most supportive of universal norms may be the very ones who don't need to be restrained by them in the first place.

The China-Russia veto guarantees that the killing in Syria, where 5,000 have already been slain by Ba'athist security forces, will intensify. That, in turn, ensures that the opposition (especially its armed elements) will regard anyone the regime eventually designates to handle negotiations as a lackey complicit in a desperate tactical maneuver. Farouk al-Sharaa--Foreign Minister from 1984-2006, Vice President thereafter, and a long-time loyalist of Assad pere and fils -- has been mentioned for this role because he's savvy and belongs to the Sunni majority (about 75 percent of the population), not to the Alawite minority at the core of the Assad regime. But someone blessed by a leadership waist-deep in blood either won't be accepted by the opposition or won't have the credibility to oversee a viable peace.

Another ominous effect of the veto will be the confidence it gives the Assad regime, or at least the hardliners inside it, such as Bashar's brother, Maher, commander of the Republican Guard. The diehards believe that the proper solution is to liquidate those who show the temerity to revolt and to scare the rest into submission, using the model of Assad pere, who, faced with an Islamist uprising in Hama in 1982, quashed it by demolishing sections of the city and killing 10,000 people, perhaps many more. This cold-eyed argument leaves unsaid what the every major Syrian official knows, which is that, should the regime fall, its key members, especially the Alawites, should expect no mercy. But the longer the shootings continue, the more this reasoning gains strength... and the more a regime that's convinced it must go for broke will rely on repression...and the bigger the death toll, the less likely that compassion and farsightedness will guide the victorious opposition. When the curtain closes on Assad and Company what happens backstage won't be pretty. That outcome could make score settling the main priority and preclude the conciliation, dialogue, and patient work that will be essential if Syrians are to look beyond the carnage and forge a new political order.

Russia and China doubtless understand all this. But they have scuttled the Security Council resolution anyway -- and for four reasons that are only tangentially related to Syria. First, Chinese and Russian leaders embrace a narrow notion of sovereignty. Its essence is that what happens within a state's territory is largely its business and that invoking human rights to enable intervention aimed at changing government is illegal. Second, they believe that such moves undermine stability and risk generating unpredictable and pernicious follow-on consequences. Moscow and Beijing charge that the U.S. and its allies exceeded the mandate of a Security Council resolution (enabled by Russia's and China's abstention) that authorized a no-flight zone to safeguard civilians and proceeded to choose sides in a civil war, which has ended with Libya in a disarray. Third, Moscow and Beijing contend that the West defends intrusive measures on human rights grounds but applies them selectively, targeting states toward which it has animus, while excusing transgressions by friends and allies. There's an internal angle to this argument. Both countries' governments face opposition, especially Russia's. The middle class that expanded under Putin's rule has now turned against him: having achieved a measure of wealth, it now wants more freedom. The Chinese leadership faces a less severe challenge, but persistent protests by Tibetans and Uighurs, and by other citizens outraged by illegal land seizures, corruption, and runaway pollution, suggest that the mismatch between China's rigid political order and the dynamic economy and society it has fostered will worsen. So given what they're facing at home, the Chinese and Russian leaders don't want a U.N. that's busy punishing states that quash uprisings.

The reasons behind the Chinese and Russia veto are clear. Alas, what's also clear is that it will worsen the violence in Syria, which, in turn, will increase the opposition's vengefulness when the regime falls, producing a political climate in which the inherently daunting challenges of constructing a post-Assad polity prove even harder.