The reports coming out of Syria are heartbreaking. From cities like Homs, the news media has been broadcasting a steady stream of images (many too graphic to show without selective redaction) featuring injured children, rocket attacks on residential neighborhoods, and thousandsof brave Syrians facing down machine guns and tanks to demand an end to the Assad regime. It’s a dramatic and distressing story.
Yet, this weekend a U.N. Security Council draft resolution that condemned the crackdown on protesters and demanded Bashar al Assad step down from power was vetoed by two of the Council’s permanent members: Russia and China. The veto drew sharp condemnation from western diplomats, with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice calling the decision “disgusting.” Now, with few options left to facilitate a cessation of violence, western diplomats are scrambling to cobble together some sort of vote in U.N. General Assembly that supports the use of sanctions.
Despite the post-veto panic on the part of the US, Russia and China’s resolution vetoes were hardly surprising. Both Russia and China were cool, if not openly hostile, toward the intervention in Libya. For starters, there’s the clear hypocrisy on the part of the U.S. supporting Bahrain’s violent and abusive crackdown on protesters while condemning those in Libya and Syria. And then there was NATO’s blatant disregard of the guidelines and constraints laid out in the UNSC resolution 1973 (2011) that legitimized the Libyan intervention: Alliance countries expanded the mandate from protecting civilians to arming rebels to overthrow Gaddafi in very short order. That France, Britain, and Qatar used Gaddafi’s fall to divvy up Russia’s commercial interests in Libya is just further proof that the Western intervention was motivated less by a concern for civilians than advancing their own interests at Moscow’s expense.
So when it came time to bring the Syria crisis before the U.N., the U.S., France, and the U.K. already had credibility problem: They had expended their good will (Russia, for example, abstained from voting on the Libyan intervention), and both Russia and China had no reason to believe the west would abide by the terms of the new resolution.
Far from a miscarriage of justice, the Syria veto is a stark reminder that unprincipled decisions about a strategic backwater – awful as Gaddafi’s crackdown on the rebels could have been, Libya is not central to U.S. national interests – have resulted in the loss of leverage with Russia and China regarding a Syrian intervention. Both countries had already suffered losses to their respective national interests from the Libyan campaign – not catastrophic but worrying nonetheless – so it’s not surprising that they dug in their heels over Syria, where the stakes are much higher.
Now, Russian envoy Sergei Lavrov is in Damascus to offer public support to the Assad regime, making it less likely that there will be proper U.N. consensus to stop the killing. Again, this should be no surprise: Syria is a major Russian ally, the only real Russian ally in the Middle East. It’s positioned strategically between Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the Mediterranean. As Dmitri Trenin bluntly puts it: “Where much of the Western world now sees a case for human rights and democracy, and where the Soviets in their day would have spotted national liberation movements or the rise of the masses, most observers in Moscow today see geopolitics.”
The U.S. and its allies have ignored the geopolitics of Syria and of intervention more broadly. It’s of course possible that Russia could have never been brought around to accepting action in Syria; China, however, very likely could have been if the West hadn’t behaved so irresponsibly in its rush to depose Gaddafi. And now that the west – the U.S. in particular – has nothing left to bargain with, Russia can act with impunity.
At this point, the best option left is to cut some sort of deal with “the devil,” as Nicholas Noe puts it. In this Faustian pact, the west would renounce the goal of regime change implicit to the UNSC resolution and instead work toward deescalating the conflict – an imperfect solution that may now have a slim chance of success, given how high tensions are running in the protesters’ camp (many of whom also hold grievances against the Assad regime for injured or dead relatives).
Sadly, the rush to save Libya last year means that there are far fewer options for the international community to effectively deal with Syria. Political capital is finite, and President Obama spent his on Libya far too quickly for a low-stakes crisis. Now, when a crisis threatens to create a civil war that spills over into Turkey, Israel, or even Iran, powers that were previously brushed aside and boxed out are now drawing a line in the sand.
For the U.S., there are few options left. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but we already know that the people who will suffer the brunt of America’s failure to navigate the politics of the U.N. Security Council are the Syrians.
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist at TheAtlantic.com.