On Saturday, Russia and China cast a double veto of a UN Security Council resolution backing an Arab League peace plan for an orderly departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, and the creation of a transitional government in that country. This was the fourth time since 2007 that the duo has vetoed resolutions criticizing brutal crackdowns in Myanmar (2007), Zimbabwe (2008), and Syria (2011, 2012).
The proposal sought to end eleven bloody months in Syria, which now threatens to spiral into a civil, and potentially regional, conflict. The veto came on the heels of a brutal massacre by the Syrian government in the town of Homs, where reports suggest that scores of people have died—and on the thirtieth anniversary of the Hama massacre in which ten thousand Syrians perished at the hands of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
This double veto by China and Russia is, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a “travesty.” Besides preventing the total isolation of the Assad regime, it gives him the green light to escalate his crackdown. It virtually ensures that the conflict will deepen into civil war.
The vetoes were cast despite the fact that the resolution itself was mild. In an attempt to mollify Russia and other skeptics, the resolution’s drafters had dropped references to calling for an arms embargo and sanctions. It also barred outside military intervention. Still, Russia objected that the resolution did not blame the opposition for violence and demanded that Syrian troops return to the barracks. Russia criticized that it “took sides” and risked “another scandal.” Secretary Clinton retorted that the true scandal was to fail to act.
The path forward is uncertain, and no doubt politically treacherous for all involved. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has pledged to work with allies to “ratchet up the pressure.” French president Sarkozy also promised to create a “group of friends” to support the Arab League proposal. Meanwhile, Russia has dispatched its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov to Damascus for talks.
As I discuss in a video posted today on CFR.org, the crisis reveals four important trends to watch:
- The Arab League continues to establish itself as a critical global player, and is no longer pulling its punches against its members. First, it advocated for international action to prevent Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi from executing mass murders of civilians. With its movement on Syria, the Arab League has demonstrated greater courage with its refusal to ignore Assad’s crimes. This bodes well for the League’s ability to contribute to crisis diplomacy and peacebuilding in the region.
- The crisis also highlights a structural challenge to working with the UN Security Council, which I have discussed previously on my blog. When one of the permanent members considers an agenda item a high priority, swift action is unlikely.
- The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect is in major crisis. The mission in Libya did not pave the way for some of the changes that its advocates hoped for.
- Syria presents U.S. president Obama with an excruciating dilemma. Having labeled atrocity prevention as a core national security concern, the president is on the hook to act. But the path forward is anything but clear—especially in an election year. One option is pursuing a surrogate form of multilateral legitimacy for coercive intervention—as the United States did with NATO in Kosovo. But that course is fraught with huge risk—both for the president’s electoral fortunes and for for relations among the Security Council titans.