China, Russia in Risky Syrian Game
Image Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

China, Russia in Risky Syrian Game


In standing firmly behind Syria, Russian and Chinese officials are defying the calls of many Western and developing country governments for firm action against the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They’ve now double vetoed two draft U.N. Security Council resolutions seeking to address the issue, and blacked other U.N. initiatives. And, in fighting against anything that could lead to forced regime change, Beijing and Moscow are running the risk of alienating much of the Arab world in the process as well as weakening the influence of the Council, a fundamental source of much of their diplomatic influence.

On February 4, the Russian and Chinese governments vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that "fully supports" the Arab League plan adopted January 22, which demanded that Assad transfer powers to a deputy. The draft resolution endorsed international efforts to “facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system…including through commencing a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.”

But Russian and Chinese officials have rejected demands to force Assad from office. They argue that it is improper for the international community to make such demands since the issue of Syria’s leadership should be determined by the Syrian people themselves. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Assad’s agreement that he would hold a constitutional referendum to decide Syria’s political future means that the opposition now “bears full responsibility” for ending the violence there.

Western and Arab governments furiously denounced Russia and China over their vetoes. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United States, said: “Those that have blocked potentially the last effort to resolve this peacefully…will have any future blood spill on their hands.” In a rare nationally televised address, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a major oil supplier to China, called the U.N. deadlock “absolutely regrettable.”

Meanwhile, Hammam Said, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, called on Arabs and Muslims to boycott Russian and Chinese products since “they are taking part in the killing of Syrian people.” The boycott gained modest support on social networks, though implementing it is difficult since Russia’s $10 billion yearly commerce with Arab countries mostly consists of weapons sales to a few Arab governments. China presents the opposite challenge of selling Arabs $200 billion annually of almost everything in return for providing one third of China’s energy imports.

So what was behind the vetoes? Russian and Chinese officials argue they are trying to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict through negotiations within the framework of an international consensus. They claim that the resolution’s backers were trying to interfere in the internal affairs of a U.N. member country by seeking to change its regime in pursuit of their larger goals of controlling the region. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Russian Security Council, said Western governments were confronting the Syrian regime not for repressing its domestic opponents, but because of its ties with Iran.

Russian and Chinese officials, doubting that Assad will ever step down voluntarily, profess to see the events in Syria as a civil war between armed factions rather than a popular revolution by an oppressed people against an entrenched dictator. In a joint news conference after meeting his Bahraini counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that, “In Syria there is more than one source of violence.”

This interpretation makes efforts at negotiating a compromise settlement much more plausible and legitimate. It also allows Beijing and Moscow to denounce U.N. resolutions that only attack the government for being unbalanced, one-sided, and encouraging the regime’s opponents to keep fighting. They fear that international demands for such an outcome are already having such a deleterious effect. "By only exerting pressure on the Syrian government and explicitly trying to coerce its leader Assad to step down,” wrote the China Daily, “the resolution sends the message to armed groups and opponents of his regime that they have the support of the international community.”

In vetoing the resolution, Russia and China therefore hoped to convince the Syrian opposition and its foreign backers that they can’t achieve a military victory and therefore have to negotiate a political settlement. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has since declared that Russia would veto any future resolutions that either seek to force Assad to yield power, or that try to impose sanctions on Syria.

In addition, there’s much suspicion in the region over Western motives, with many Arabs sharing Russian and Chinese perceptions that Western governments often use human rights abuses as a pretext for deposing regimes whose policies they oppose for other reasons. Indeed, Dimitry Babich, a Russian foreign policy analyst, offered a more refined variant in which the West is seen as creating an emergency to justify its intervention. “We see in Syria exactly what happened in Libya. We have a crisis artificially-created, obviously operated by some forces outside Syria,” he said. “So they provoke the government, they provoke the soldiers into committing atrocities, which no one in Russia supports, and then they impose some kind of U.N. sanctions and then there is direct intervention.”

And from this perspective, if the current regime collapses, the result is certainly less likely to be a gentle transition to a liberal democracy than fighting among the elements of the winning coalition over their division of the spoils, with the most ruthless factions, which are seen as Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda, having the best shot at victory. Russian analyst Pyotr Romanov criticizes foreign governments for seeking regime change without fully considering what would follow: “But has anyone given any thought to what happens next? Are you really trying to tell us that good moral forces will come to power? People with no blood on their hands, who will bring anything decent, much less democracy? Please.”


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February 21, 2012 at 11:39

@Bluedog: What do you expect from people like JC? his devine government trained, armed and supplied the Khmer rouge that killed 1/3 of the Cambodian population in the 70′s.

February 17, 2012 at 07:26

You have a vivid imagination, conducive to formenting conspiricy theories without thought for the people suffering at the hands of megalomaniacs or religious zealots.
An appeal to your humane senses would appear a waste of effort, given your hatred of freedom , democracy, and people.

February 16, 2012 at 02:11

Very well said.

February 16, 2012 at 02:10

And china mastered the tactic in Tianmen square, as well as 60 millions dead chinese.

John Chan
February 15, 2012 at 13:14

Westpac is showing Russia and China how to suppress people effectively, bombing and killing is Westpac’s method of choice.

John Chan
February 15, 2012 at 13:08

There are a lot of infiltrations by the CIA from Iraq in Syria. Syria seems the next fall guy after Iraq on the chopping block of the predatory imperialist Westpac. From Bluedog’s comment, it seems another regime change is in the making. Maybe Syria is a warm up for the next target Iran.

February 15, 2012 at 09:22

The UN security council became obsolete in 2003. The approval of the worlds two largest dictatorships should not be needed.
Syrian’s protested peacefully for months requesting political reform all the while being violently attacked by their President. A resort to arms in order to protect themselves is the invariable result, and justified.
The defecting soldiers have come to personal decisions regarding human rights and the protection of the people they have been trained to defend on the one hand, and self-serving survival and murder according to the orders of Assad on the other. They need arms, medical supplies, better communication networks, and NATO air support.

February 15, 2012 at 04:02

They are willing to double-veto because they are willing to use the same tactics on their own people if need be to keep power. One can be judged by the company one keeps and when one sees Beijing’s (or Moscow) outposts such as Harare, Damascus, Tehran, and Pyongyang among others then is it not reasonable to conclude that Moscow and Beijing approve of this type of behaviour. Besides what one has acuqired by force one cannot keep with Democratic means. . .

And since we are witnessing a “peaceful rise” then why are these Monks in Tibet setting themselves on fire right now? Would not peaceful Tibetan Monks share a common interest in a “peaceful rise” ushered in by the cadres?

February 15, 2012 at 01:20

I’d say that China and Russia, hoping that Assad’s government could quickly crush the protests, may have ironically managed to encourage the situation to devolve into a a de facto civil war*. Absent U.N condemnation or any outside threat the government forces have used increasing amounts of force, causing the initial peaceful protesters to be sidelined by anti-government forces. I won’t say that it wouldn’t have happened anyway (especially considering the communal nature of the strife) but this certainly helped. At this point I suspect the best possible outcome would be a U.N peacekeeping force sent to Syria and even that’s simply the best out of a group of bad choices.

A word of advice to China from Americans who have learned this over sixty years. You can’t interfere and then pretend that you haven’t done it. If you want to be economically involved in a state and give political cover to its government during a major crackdown you have to be willing to accept that it could cause horrible blowback. There are going to be far more Chinese citizens getting kidnapped and Chinese businesses getting targeted in the future, you’ll have to get used to it.

*I’m not sure what criteria they use for civil war but I notice that people are increasingly afraid of using the term even when it’s fully justified, instead preferring to call it ‘insurgency’.

Kimbo Y. Laurel
February 14, 2012 at 20:20

What do expect from this guys? They are known to suppress their own people. Bird with the same feather flock together.

February 14, 2012 at 19:54

if U.S. wants to attack and overthrow Assad as a way of making the pending Iranian adventure far less riskier … it should just do that.. without bringing this whole Humanitarian intervention thing every time… the whole world knows what U.S. wants.. just say it.. please…

February 14, 2012 at 10:12

CCP “Flip-flopping”

It’s the only consistent thing in CCP foreign policy

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