Nevertheless, the United States responded to the vetoes with anger and fairly intense rhetoric. After its veto at the UNSC, Russia is sending a delegation led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Damascus on Tuesday for talks with the Syrian leadership.
It is interesting that China and Russia acted together in the first place. The willingness of both to cast vetoes when one would have sufficed indicates the emergence of a bloc on Syria and beyond. The reasons for the bloc are not difficult to understand. China and Russia were both unsettled by the principles on which NATO intervened in Libya. The logic behind that intervention was simple: The Libyan government was historically oppressive and, in the course of an uprising, was planning to impose mass murder on its enemies. Given this, the international community decided that it had an obligation to intervene in order to save innocent lives.
The Russian and Chinese view was that this doctrine opened the door to unlimited interventions not in response to mass murder, but in order to prevent mass murder. From the Chinese and Russian perspective, this would allow intervention based on fears. Fears can be feigned and anyone can assert the threat of mass murder and war crimes. Therefore, the Libyan precedent seemed to be a doctrine that justified intervention based on suspicion of intent. Or, to put it more bluntly, the Russian and Chinese view was that the intervention in Libya was designed to achieve political and economic goals, and the threat of impending mass murder was simply the justification.
China and Russia viewed the Syrian resolution as a preface to more aggressive resolutions also based on the doctrine of preventing atrocities much greater than those already committed. They felt that this would set a permanent principle of international law that they opposed. Their opposition was based on the perception that this was merely a justification for interventions against regimes of which the West disapproved. They also saw themselves as potential victims over the long term. Both regimes are authoritarian, to say the least, and both face potential domestic opposition. Events could transpire such that Russia and China could one day be weakened and coping with insurgencies, and they would have implicitly agreed, by supporting multiple U.N. interventions, to interventions in their countries. It might be seen as a far-fetched idea, but it is of sufficient significance that neither Russia nor China was willing to allow the principle to take hold.
There were, of course, more immediate geopolitical issues. As we have argued before, Iran is in the process of establishing a sphere of influence in which Syria plays a strategic role. If al Assad survives, his regime will be heavily dependent on Iran. Neither China nor Russia would be particularly troubled by this. Certainly, Russia does not want to see an excessively powerful Iran, but it would welcome any dynamic that would tie American power down in a long-term duel with Iran. Creating a regional balance of power would divert U.S. power in directions that would provide Russia with freedom for maneuver.
The same can be said of China, with the additional proviso that the Chinese do not want to see anything interfere with their energy trade with Iran. So there were two issues for China. First, China did not want a precedent set that might allow an American intervention in Iran. Second, China, like Russia, welcomed the diversion of American power from the South China Sea, where it had been planning to shift forces.
In the expansion of Iranian influence, Syria is now the major battlefield. What we have now seen is that China and Russia recognize the battlefield and for now are prepared to side with Iran against the United States, a move that makes clear sense from a balance of power perspective. At the same time, challenging the United States is always potentially dangerous, and the Russians reverted to an old strategy of thwarting the United States in the United Nations, then sending a senior delegation to Syria to speak with al Assad. It is assumed that what the delegation will say are the things that the Americans would like to hear. That is undoubtedly the wink and nod behind the delegation.
What is more likely is that the Russians will make a warning to al Assad as a formality and perhaps will look around for a personality who might take al Assad’s place while preserving the regime. But the Russians understand that such a move could destabilize the Syrian regime, and they are satisfied with the way things are. Therefore, sending a Russian delegation to Damascus on Tuesday is a gesture toward settlement. It will not placate the United States. Ultimately, the Russians know that and don’t seem to care.
“China and Russia act to block a new precedent for intervention” republished with the permission of Stratfor, www.stratfor.com
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