Bashar al-Assad can feel satisfied that powerful allies have stood by him and prevented international action that might just have given him pause for thought as he pursues his vicious crackdown on Syria‘s protest movement.
The veto by Russia and China of a UN security council resolution threatening unspecified measures against Syria caps months of diplomatic action at the UN. Britain, France and Portugal knew they were facing an uphill struggle, so they watered down the text of what they were proposing, bending over backwards to avoid failure.
Since military action was specifically excluded, the optimists thought Russia might comply. But on Tuesday night there was a last-minute hardening of Moscow’s position. Beijing, as ever, dutifully followed suit. Lebanon, India, South Africa and Brazil – currently on the council – abstained.
This is bad news for protesters in Syria, where 2,700 have been killed since March, and bad news for those who yearn for a UN that can prove effective, if not in tackling all the world’s ills at once then at least in responding to one of its most glaring and urgent injustices.
The chorus of condemnation from western capitals sounded genuine. Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the UN, expressed outrage. “This will be seen in the region as a decision to side with a brutal regime rather than with the people of Syria,” complained William Hague, “and will be a bitter blow to all those Syrians who have implored the international community to take a stand.” France’s Alain Juppé found the veto “deplorable”. Privately the Russians were accused of being “hypocritical and cynical”.
Arms sales and a strategic relationship with Syria certainly played a role in Russia’s decision, just as US links to Bahrain have tempered its criticism of repression in the Gulf state. But the objections from Moscow and Beijing were more about their anger over Libya: both backed UN resolution 1973, which established a no-fly zone and threatened Tripoli with “all necessary means” but never intended to back what they came to see as regime change by stealth. Still, Muammar Gaddafi’s menacing advance on Benghazi and excoriation of his enemies as “rats” was not a western ploy.
Opposition to concerted UN action against Damascus is not consequence free. “Attempts to justify this position by referring to the military intervention in Libya are utterly irresponsible,” Amnesty International said on Wednesday. “The Syrian people should not have to suffer because of political disagreements about the situation in a different country. Yesterday’s veto was nothing short of a betrayal of the Syrian people.”
The failure of diplomacy seems likely to mean further escalation on the ground, where protests are becoming militarised and there is talk of a fully fledged civil war. Threats of a new round of EU sanctions are unlikely to deter Assad if he can count on the loyal protection of those who call the shots at the world’s top table, which he clearly feels he deserves – it was no surprise that Syria’s ambassador complained about repeated US vetos to defend Israel.
The last time there was a rare double veto by Russia and China it was in 2008 and in defence of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who, like Assad, is still in power. But he’s not great company to be in.