China, Russia in Risky Syrian Game

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

China, Russia in Risky Syrian Game

Chinese and Russian vetoes over condemning Syria have infuriated Western capitals. But the reasons for them are more complex than some realize.

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.”

Another reason some Russian and Chinese leaders have been wary of backing the U.S. and others, although they would be unlikely to admit it publicly, is that they fear that these Western-backed revolts against the authoritarian governments of the Middle East might encourage similar resistance among their own people, or even establish precedents for foreign intervention in their own internal affairs. As Prof. Yin Gang, a Middle East expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued: “If the U.N. can do this in Syria, it will do it again to another country in the future, and that’s what Chinese leaders are worried about."

But Beijing and Moscow haven’t only had Western nations to contend with in deciding whether to issue their vetoes. Both have traditionally sought not to alienate Middle Eastern regimes with whom they have cultivated valuable energy and other economic ties. This concern applies to the governments under Western attack such as Syria, Iran, and previously Libya. But it also applies to their relations with the pro-Western regimes of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, which also supply China with much energy and enjoy decent diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow. These governments have expelled the Syrian ambassadors from their countries and recalled their own ambassadors from Syria. Lobbying by these governments reportedly led China, though not Russia, to consider abstaining rather than voting against the U.N. resolution supporting the Arab League peace plan.

And there are other differences between Russia and China over the Syrian crisis that highlight how nuanced an issue this is. Although both governments voted against the proposed resolution, Russia would probably have cast the sole but decisive veto even if Beijing had abstained. The Chinese delegation, on the other hand, would probably not have cast the only negative vote since Beijing’s practice has been to avoid vetoing resolutions alone.

The Chinese government also seems more flexible regarding its future position. Chinese officials recently opened formal contacts with the Syrian opposition, hosting a delegation from the Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that, "China is willing to maintain contacts and communication with relevant Syrian opposition groups, is willing to push and encourage talks and make great efforts to ameliorate the situation.” Chinese officials have said they are open to cooperating with the United States and other countries to find a solution to the Syrian crisis, and Vice President Xi Jinping is likely to discuss Syria when he visits Washington later this week.

But although both Beijing and Moscow have called for a peaceful resolution to the current crisis through talks between the Assad government and its opponents, Russian officials alone have undertaken a major effort to end the fighting. In general, of course, they’ve always been much more interested in having a leading role in Middle East peace negotiations. At various times, Russian representatives have tried to mediate between Israel and Hamas, Iran and the West, and Syria and Israel. Russian officials are eager to affirm their role as an important player in world affairs and most want to host a Middle East peace conference to confirm their role in that region. But Russia’s ability to broker a settlement in Syria is compromised by its close ties with the Assad regime, which naturally leads the Syrian opposition to doubt Moscow’s impartiality.

So, is the Syrian impasse a sign of things to come? It still seems unlikely that Russia and China will extend their obstinate behavior in the U.N. Security Council regarding Syria to other issues. Within the Council, Moscow and Beijing enjoy the unique privilege of being able to veto other countries’ policies. But if they overuse this privilege, Western powers will act as in Kosovo, Iraq, and other cases, and proceed to use military power and other coercive force without U.N. authorization, citing other means of legitimizing their behavior.

Indeed, the fact that they have declined to do so thus far in Syria indicates that, despite Russian and Chinese fears, the United States and its allies are actually not particularly eager to engage in yet another war in the Middle East.