Stewart M. Patrick

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Lessons from the Russian-Chinese Double Veto

by Stewart M. Patrick
February 6, 2012

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks to China Ambassador Li Baodong during a U.N. Security Council meeting, February 4, 2012 (Allison Joyce/ Courtesy Reuters). United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks to China Ambassador Li Baodong during a U.N. Security Council meeting, February 4, 2012 (Allison Joyce/ Courtesy Reuters).

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.

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  • Posted by CM Yeung

    A few observations. First, when you tricked your partners, you shouldn’t expect a cakewalk next time around. No sooner had the ink dried on the UN resolution on Libya than British Prime Minister David Cameron boasted of finding a legal loophole to pursue the West’s grand scheme of regime change. Trust is lost, and the double veto should be more or less expected.

    Second, just when does a lack of UN resolution a hindrance if the West really decides to act? Past precedents such as Kosovo and Iraq could attest to it. If they choose to stay away, they now have scapegoats to blame for any unpleasant consequences too.

    Third, wouldn’t it be wishful thinking that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will step down and problem solved due to passage of an UN resolution? Doing so is tantamount to signing his own death warrant. He would most likely fight to his last blood and sadly may drag the whole country, or even the region, down with him.

    Fourth, saying that “The Arab League…..is no longer pulling its punches against its members.” is at best cherry picking. Where was it when Yemen shot on protestors repeatedly or when Saudi Arabia sent its troop to help suppress protests in Bahrain? Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi has been an outcast for years. Whereas, Syria is a close ally of Iran. With the West ratcheting up pressure against Iran lately, is it merely a coincident?

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks for pointing out this continuing pattern of divergent geopolitical direction between the west and the infamous cabal: IRI, Russia, PRC, DPRK, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil and perhaps a couple more.

    I think what we are seeing are geolpolitical chess moves. Could it be that USG is trying to gain influence in Syria by influencing the regime change that most believe is coming one way or the other?

    The IRI, Russia and the PRC especially know the deal and are doing everything they can to curb western global influence. These countries will defiantly resist any compromise on sovereignty and have made it a mantle-piece of their foreign policy. And that’s because the west is out to sink it.

    So, perhaps Russia and PRC (being members on the Security Council) are simply doing what they’ve been doing by trade with the IRI, shenanigans in Africa and the games it has played to foster terrorism (oops, did I say that?); maybe they are simply trying to frustrate western geopolitical objectives.

    So, I think this in fact comes back to the big picture and the 800 pound gorilla in the living room. There is an Epic Contest going on over who is going to have the most influence in future multilateral institutions and practices.

    But I could be wrong.

    Let’s be transparent here and lump this cabal in with the nationalistically defined “old order” on their murderous rampage in Syria right about now.

    - kk
    kirkomrik.wordpress.com

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