The Syrian veto: China, Russia and the Arab Spring
It all began on March 15 2011 when protestors, inflamed by the arrest of a group of teenagers and inspired by the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Libyan people, took their desire for freedom and justice to the streets of Daraa in southwest Syria, and started the deadliest episode of the Arab Spring. Despite President Assad’s confident assurance to the world that Sham was immune from anti-Government protests, what began in Daraa kick-started Syria’s descent into a civil war; a war that seems unstoppable as it approaches its first anniversary and marks the end of a chaotic year in Syrian history.
Given the geostrategic importance of Syria and Assad’s popularity and carefully constructed image as a reformer, there was early optimism inside and outside Syria over his willingness and capability to calm the situation through the initiation of meaningful reforms. As a matter of fact, there were commentators who believed that the Arab Spring had provided the reform-minded, Western-educated Bashar with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity finally to unleash a series of socio-political reforms, thereby weakening the more conservative members of his inner circle and encourage their early retirements.
Two months into the uprising, there emerged a sudden change in the stance of regional and extra-regional actors towards Syria led by Turkey. It was in this context of rising tensions that Syria lost its Arab League membership; GCC states, Britain, France, and the US closed their embassies; more economic sanctions were imposed by the EU, the US, and the Arab League, which also sent a monitoring mission to Syria that had two broad outcomes: embarrassment for the League, and the departure of Syrian ambassadors from the GCC. In response, Syria’s allies – namely, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and China – increased their public backing of the Syrian regime, helping to create a mini Cold War situation in the Levant; a situation that acquired a whole new dimension when China and Russia vetoed a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution on Syria for the second time, claiming that it was unbalanced and unreasonable.
Hillary Clinton described China and Russia’s veto as a ‘travesty’; the Turkish Prime Minster called it a ‘fiasco’, and various Arab regimes accused Beijing and Moscow of licensing more killing in Syria. Russia and China, however, dismissed all these accusations and justified their veto as an attempt to seek ‘peaceful settlement of the chronic Syrian crisis’. Hence, digging beneath the surface and behind the veil of what has become a ‘war of rhetoric’, it is useful to ask why Beijing and Moscow, which have typically tried to align their policies with regional states/blocks, have disregarded and antagonised the Arab League by lending their backing to Mr. Assad, and how disruptive their support and indeed cooperation is to the international community’s efforts to end the violence in Syria.
For both Russia and China, and indeed the other members of the BRICs, NATO’s intervention in Libya was a wakeup call. As is evident in their remarks during the last meeting of BRICs leaders in 2011, the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya was less of a humanitarian operation and more of a well thought out, Western-engineered strategy of regime change in order to perpetuate Western dominance over the entire MENA. As such, Chinese and Russian rationale today is that they no longer want the UN to be involved in further cases of ‘regime change’. Put differently, they fear that the Libyan campaign has set up a precedent for intervention based on human rights, and this, needless to say, has raised red flags in Beijing and Moscow at a time of leadership change/elections and rising domestic discontent and public protests in both countries.
Russia has made considerable inroads in the Syrian energy sector having recently signed a $370 million contract to construct a gas pipeline leading to al-Rayyan, a gas processing plant near Palmyra, and a multibillion dollar preliminary contract to build an oil refining and petrochemical complex in Syria. Aware of the Damascus inability to purchase Western weaponries, Moscow has successfully carved out a niche market for its arms industry there with contracts worth $6 billion. In 2005, Russia wrote off 73% of Syria’s debt in return for preferential treatment for Russian businesses in the Syrian market. Assad’s fall, then, can greatly endanger all these gains, especially if members of the Muslim Brotherhood make their way to high office. This is so because Moscow, in its attempt to please the Syrian government, has included the party on its list of terrorist organisations. Finally, Russia does not wish to see the emergence of a pro-Western government in Syria since such a development could negatively affect its ability to use its only naval base in the Middle East located at the Syrian port of Tartus.
China, on the other hand, sees an opportunity in both the Syrian revolution and Iran’s standoff with the West to retard America’s newly developed ‘Pacific Century’ strategy. Washington has poked its nose into the South China Sea dispute, and recently announced a decision to station troops in Australia. It pushed forward a framework trade agreement that does not include China, while simultaneously calling on Beijing to let its currency appreciate. And to add insult to the injury, the Obama administration has reached out to Burma, one of China’s longstanding allies, in an effort to coax the nascent democratisation in that country into something more long-lasting. As such, Beijing is determined to prevent a quick and/or smooth end to the current crisis in the Middle East so as to ensure that the US will remain occupied there, thereby buying more time to expand its influence in its own neighbourhood. Aware of the US commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s vulnerability to threats emanating from instability in Syria and tensions with Iran, Chinese strategists commonly assert that Washington has no option but to remain involved in the Middle Eastern affairs, and that the more prolonged its involvement the more accelerated the American decline, and hence the lower its ability to see through its Asia Pacific strategy. As China embarks on its Silk Road Strategy, moreover, President Assad’s recently articulated Four Seas Strategy in combination with his anti-Western foreign policy orientation seems to reinforce China’s own look west strategy rather elegantly, facilitating Beijing’s efforts in both establishing a new regional security architecture and retrenching Western influences in the ‘world’s heartland’.
Not having a reliable and powerful Arab partner, and believing that Arab League decisions are driven by a handful of pro-Western states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Russia and China have therefore decided to act alongside one another, building a coalition of interest in drawing a red line under UN involvement in the internal affairs of other nations. At the same time, they may have calculated that acting in concert will enhance their strategic positions in Asia at a time of renewed US interest in the region, while it could also pave the way for the emergence of a common Sino-Russo stance on both the North Korean and Iranian standoffs with the West.
More importantly though, Russia and China are seriously concerned with the precedents that a repeat of the Libyan scenario could set for the public in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has already gone through two revolutions in the last five years, while forced secularism and the violent crackdown of dissent in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have led to the rise of both Islamism and Islamic extremism. Most recently, security forces in Kazakhstan shot and killed at least 16 people in December protests in a Western oil town, followed by a smaller protest on February 25 in Almaty. As such, China and Russia are worried about the potential consequences of Islamists’ rise in the Middle East on the Islamist movements in Central Asia as well as Chechnya and Xinjiang, while fearing that UN mandated intervention in the Middle East might encourage the public in Central Asia to stage their own anti-government protests. After all, and in spite of stark socio-political differences between the two regions, there is a dangerous societal commonality between the two sides: ‘widespread popular anger at crony capitalism practised by corrupt and authoritarian elites coupled with a lack of economic opportunity for the majority’.
Yet, to single out the newly found love between China and Russia as the main cause of the ongoing crisis in Syria is naïve at best. First of all, the vote was a result of democratic decision-making in New York. As members of the UNSC, China and Russia are fully entitled to make their own judgments and decisions in the settlement of disputes. The US itself has often vetoed resolutions voted for by other countries. On the peace issue, for instance, the US has vetoed no less than sixty UN resolutions critical of the Israeli Government.
Similarly, the Russian government values its warm-water Mediterranean port at Tartus, just as much as the US Fifth Fleet values its home in Bahrain. As such, it is understandable that Moscow avoids criticising its Syrian ally in the same way that Washington remained largely silent over the events in Bahrain in 2011. This is not to endorse their behaviour, nor is it to claim that their veto has not complicated matters. It is rather, as a cynical realist would say, to suggest that the Syrian uprising is about realpolitik, and thus all the actors involved are guided by their own national interests and relative diplomatic, economic, and military might in relation to others.
Interestingly then, it is more likely that the Sino-Russo veto is being used as a scapegoat by a confused and divided international community in an attempt to buy itself more time until it can come up with an approach that is acceptable to all sides. Nearly a year into the Syrian uprising, Syrian opposition forces have yet to prove capable of forming a united front against the Government of Bashar Al-Assad. Given the internal fragmentations, Americans and their allies are reluctant to arm them, and instead wonder how these forces can be entrusted with the job of governance when they are helpless in fighting a common enemy. And to make matters worse, the intensification of internal fighting and the regime’s militaristic approach to the unrest, has had the adverse effect of militarising the once peaceful uprising, which in essence benefits the regime above all others, helping it to validate the discourse that it is fighting armed terrorist groups.
Concerned with the potential impact of a sudden regime change in Syria and how such a development could affect Israel’s security by, for example, inflaming a ‘Palestinian Spring’, Washington, along with Israel, has opted for a wait-and-see approach, limiting its contribution to moral support and deployment of drones to monitor the fighting. Britain, France, and Turkey, meanwhile, have sought to lead the efforts from behind the scenes, but without any avail. Given the sectarian composition of Syrian society, Paris and, albeit to a lower extent, London prefer to support a secular force, whereas Ankara is all too happy to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. This difference of opinion has pitted Turkey and France against one another with reports in the Turkish press linking the French government’s recent decision to criminalise the ‘denials of the 1915 events in Armenia as genocide’ to this disagreement over Syria.
As for the Arab world, any suggestion of a united Arab front mounts to nothing but mere illusion, and in fact there is a real danger of crumbling Arab consensus over Syria not least because the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria was not unanimous: Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria abstained. In addition, although the GCC states are keen on arming the Syrian rebels, there is an intra-GCC disagreement over who to support. Saudi Arabia and the UAE deeply distrust the Muslim Brotherhood, and prefer to utilise their tribal and Salafi connections as well as relations with disgruntled regime figures. For its part, Qatar, similar to Turkey, has heavily invested in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even if the GCC states were to overcome their differences and use their tribal links to arm the opposition, they would still need the full cooperation of Iraq and Jordan since Sunni tribal confederations are spread in an area extending from northeast Syria to eastern Iraq to eastern Jordan to northern Saudi Arabia. Baghdad is unlikely to cooperate because it is influenced by Tehran, and is also nervous about the prospect of increased linkages between Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s Sunni tribes. As for Jordan, suffice it to say its geography and small size make the Government extremely nervous about even limited Syrian military or intelligence moves against it should Damascus perceive that there is Jordanian support for Syrian dissidents.
It is in light of these considerations that it becomes clear why China and Russia cannot be solely held responsible for the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, and why there is no sign of an immediate end to the conflict. Today’s struggle in Syria is a tussle between a determined coalition of minorities that is fighting for its life, and a divided majority that has yet to overcome its internal disputes. In the aftermath of Iran’s disputed election, Iran’s Supreme Leader made a statement that is highly applicable to the Syrian theatre: ‘at the end, the determined side will prevail in a street fight’, Khamenei stated. This is not to suggest that Assad will remain in power, but only to point out that he has a very good chance of doing so given that the domestic balance of power still tilts in his favour. No doubt, President Assad has lost a great deal of regional support as well as political and economic power, and that his days could well be numbered. Given the durability of the conflict and the resulting deepening of communal distrust in Syria, nonetheless, one can be certain that Assadism will continue to define the political reality of Syria even if Mr. Assad himself leaves the scene.
As for the evolution of the Sino-Russo partnership in the MENA, two points stand out. The first one is that the idea that Beijing and Moscow’s behaviour has led to their isolation is misleading. If anything, the Turkish Government’s pragmatic decision to ignore the Syrian issue during the Chinese Vice-President’s visit, and the upcoming visit of the GCC foreign ministers to Russia point to the contrary. In an important sense, it could be argued, Beijing and Moscow’s veto have turned them into the key external actors in the Syrian crisis since they still talk to both sides. Secondly, China and Russia’s influence over Syria ought not to be exaggerated simply because this new partnership between them is at best a fragile marriage of convenience unlikely to stand the test of time.
The US-backed global missile defence network and its newly installed radar system in Turkey, the anti-Chinese flavour of its ‘Pacific Century’ grand strategy, its recent decision not to inform Russia about the redeployment of its global armada, and indeed NATO’s misuse of the UN resolution in Libya have collectively encouraged Beijing and Moscow to develop near-identical threat perceptions. However, China and Russia are strategic rivals who are destined to go head to head over influence in Central Asia and the Middle East in the long run. One key reason behind such an assertion is that while China has a national interest in keeping the prices of oil and gas low, Russia, as a producer, has the opposite interest.
Signs of heightened rivalry between the two states have already surfaced, as evident in the rapid reduction in the volume of Russian arm sales to China since 2008. Wary of China’s rise, Russia is now refusing to sell its advanced weaponries and technology to Beijing forcing China to establish closer ties to Ukraine and Belarus; ‘production centres of advanced Russian technology’. Added to this is Beijing’s desire to institutionalise its strategic rivalry with Russia in Central Asia and beyond. The fact that Belarus became a dialogue partner at the organisation immediately after its completion of lucrative trade and military agreements with China is a testimony to this. Given the depth of historical and contemporary enmity between China and Russia, history shows that their cooperative gestures have been strongest only when their bilateral ties with Washington have suffered setbacks. Therefore, it is fair to suggest that how the Sino-Russo cooperation in the Middle East will evolve is largely dependent on how the US will shape its policies towards these two giants and whether or not it will try to improve ties with one to the detriment of the other.