Thousands of Syrian citizens have been killed by their own army as violence racks the Syrian uprising against dictatorial leader Bashar al-Assad. The Arab Spring reached Syria later than it did many Middle Eastern countries, but now its effects are blooming in full. Unfortunately, what started as a peaceful protest for political freedom has become increasingly brutal as the Syrian army cracks down on protesters and protesters start striking back with assassinations of government supporters and officials. In an effort to halt the violence, the UN Security Council tried to pass a resolution calling for Assad’s resignation last week but was vetoed by Russia and China. This Security Council deadlock, reflecting complex conflicting interests, comes at a crucial time as hundreds are being killed in the city of Homs alone as the government shells the town.
The Assad family, which belongs to the Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shi’a Islam), has ruled mostly Sunni Syria since 1970. The Assad regime is also closely tied to Iran, which views Syria as a strategic partner in a Sunni-dominated region. The connection to Iran could be one reason Russia and China vetoed the recent Security Council resolution. As with the situation in Syria, Russia and China have both been blamed by Western nations for undermining sanctions on Iran (although they did pass the Iran resolutions). Russia and China continue to engage in trade and other relations with Iran. One example is Iran’s observer status in the Russia and China dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), whose unstated goal is anti-Western-hegemony.
Less self-interested motives for the veto might by China’s and Russia’s interest in preserving stability. China and Russia, themselves not democratic, have always been hesitant to support overthrows of dictators. In the Libyan revolution, for instance, China and Russia felt that NATO out-stepped its bounds with heavy airstrikes and the complete toppling of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Gaddafi’s gruesome death at the hands of rebels further compounds Chinese and Russian concerns about international intervention in Syria. They fear that intervention in Syria might be just as violent as Libya’s and will further destabilize the region. These anti-interventionist feelings are perhaps best summed up by Russian Prime Minister Putin’s assessment of other world leaders’ actions as akin to “a bull in a china shop.”
An China faces is its historic stance on noninterference in other nations. China is fiercely protective of its own sovereignty (and probably overly aggressive in disputed areas over which it claims sovereignty) and resents attempts by any country to meddle in others’ affairs. A researcher at the Chinese State Council-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that China feels Syria’s pain as outside actors promote regime change in their country. This reason, while obviously loaded with domestic political interests, is nevertheless understandable from China’s position.
Following the Security Council veto, both Russia and China faced a barrage of intense criticism from the United States, France, and Britain. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “To block this resolution is to bear responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria.” Perhaps in an effort to dispel the accusations of apathy, China, hosted and met with a Syrian opposition delegation this week, showing its willingness to engage in the discussion on stopping the violence. A key point Chinese diplomats emphasized was the need for talks and a peaceful resolution. Along the same lines, Russia sent an envoy to Damascus to urge Assad’s government to halt the violence. Despite these efforts and assurances from the Syrian government, however, many observers are still skeptical since Assad has broken many such promises in the last few months.
While it is difficult to sit and watch while innocent civilians are being slaughtered, the international community must accept the difficulty of the Syrian situation. With two key members of the UN Security Council set against the removal of Assad, it is difficult to proceed with international support. However, the gravity of the situation calls for action. This Monday (February 13), the UN General Assembly is set to discuss the Syrian issue. Saudi Arabia is circulating a draft resolution agreed on by the Arab League calling for Assad to step down and the violence to cease. Although a vote in the General Assembly will not be legally binding, it is nevertheless an expression of international sentiment. If the United States and allies can throw their full diplomatic weight into this, perhaps global opinion will be unified enough for multilateral action.
Peace, stability, and democracy are hard to build, especially in the wake of dictatorship and violence on both sides. However, if the Syrian people truly believe in freedom and gain the support of the international community, even those who oppose action now will have to make way for the wave of global support.