Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2012.03.14

The Situation in Syria...and Russia and China

The situation in Syria is continuing to deteriorate further. Reportedly, over 5,000 people have been killed to date (see Associated Press, February 24, 2012.) According to some reports, even larger numbers are dead; however, given the fluid nature of the situation, determining these figures with accuracy is difficult. So, it is probably safe to assume that at least several thousand have been killed.

One year ago, Libya was in a situation similar to that of Syria today. On the difficult and arduous road toward achieving their "Arab Spring", many citizens were casualties. I remember how the United Nations and many countries expended best efforts in attempting to prevent the situation in Libya from worsening.

The situation in Syria today, however, is somewhat different from that in Libya. On February 4, the United Nations Security Council debated a resolution that called for the Syrian government to end its attacks on civilians, to release protest participants from prison, to withdraw its armed forces from Homs and other locations, and to respect the rights of citizens to participate in peaceful protests. Thirteen of the fifteen members of the Security Council supported that resolution, which, however, was vetoed by Russia and China. Although the resolution with respect to Libya had been more demanding, it was nonetheless adopted by the Security Council and, ultimately, it served as the basis for resolving the difficult situation in that country.

At several points in the past, Russia and China have vetoed Security Council resolutions that would have allowed the U.N. to intervene with respect to human rights and humanitarian issues.

Their rationale for vetoing such resolutions is that even international organizations ought not to intervene with force in a manner that ignores or overrides the will of a sovereign state. The Chinese believe that, decades ago, western nations had themselves engaged in acts that were inhumane, and that a nation's stage of development should be taken into consideration. It so happened that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited the United States about ten days after the February 4 debate on the Syrian resolution. When, in the course of that visit, the U.S. asked that China respect human rights, Xi Jinping's response indicated that China held just that view.

In the case of Syria, it was Russia, and not China, that was at the forefront of opposing the Security Council resolution. That was due to Russia's historically close relations with Syria. Syria has been pro-Russia ever since the Suez crisis of 1956. When, at that time, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt in order to regain Western control of the Suez Canal in response to its nationalization by Egypt, the Soviet Union was forceful in demanding their withdrawal. With pressure from the United States, along with that of the USSR, the three countries failed to achieve their objective. Since that time, relations between the Soviet Union and Egypt and Syria have grown closer. The Syrian port city of Tartus has been hosting Russia's naval supply and maintenance base, in support of the Russian Navy's fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, while Russia has been supplying Syria with missiles and other arms, as well as renovating the Tartus naval base. The base now allows access to Russian nuclear-armed vessels. Relations between the two countries have deepened further since the Soviet Union became Russia and, today, Syria is the 7th largest buyer of Russia's weapons. Syria's cooperation with Russian naval forces is akin to that of Turkey, with NATO's defense strategy, outside the European theater.

If the Assad regime falls as a result of the democratization protests that are supported by the international community, that will severely damage Russia's close relations with Syria, which it has built up over many years, and its interests in Syria. Accordingly, Russia's position is that Syria must, on its own accord and without foreign intervention, reform and respond to democratization demands from its people.

Despite the Security Council's failure to adopt a resolution, nations other than Russia and China are unlikely to give up. On February 24, the Friends of Syria met in Tunisia, but that meeting ended with no concrete measures agreed. If Syria's situation deteriorates further, however, it is possible that NATO forces might take action without the endorsement of the Security Council, as happened with Yugoslavia (including Kosovo.)

NATO has not acted yet because the situation remains fluid and because there is uncertainty as to the real composition of the opposition forces, including their relations with Al Qaeda.

How far will Russia and China go to maintain their opposition to intervention? Vladimir Putin, in a pre-election position paper, warned against NATO intervention. Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has visited Syria and called for a quick solution to the crisis. It is possible that Russia will engage in negotiations with President Assad. Inasmuch as Russia has argued to the western nations that the problems in Syria can be solved without coercive intervention, it is incumbent on Russia to show both its diplomatic skills and results.

The recent presidential election in Russia brought Putin back to power, but he does not appear to have the same power that he held back in 2000 when he first assumed the presidency. How will this affect his diplomacy? As a general rule, when a leader has weak domestic support, he/she tends to take tougher diplomatic positions. In the current situation, however, most western and Arab nations are critical of the Syrian government, so, even with China's support, it will be difficult for Russia to be contrary to them. This, then, will be a test case by which we can assess the nature of Russia's new government.