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Russia’s Motives Behind the Syrian Conflict


Syrian refugees in Turkey
Syrians at the Hacipasa refugee camp in Antakya, near Syria's border with Turkey. The 16-month conflict has spurred about 119,000 refugees pouring into neighboring countries. FREEDOM HOUSE

CANBERRA — China and Russia have cast three vetoes on draft United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at tougher international responses to the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on protestors and rebels in the last 16 months. China and Russia have drawn much flak for their resistance to UN efforts to end the mass killings in Syria. Yet, as with all large powers, their positions reflect a mix of what they view as principled objections as well as commercial and geopolitical calculations.

The stark reality is that the debate over what to do in Syria is as much about relations with Iran, China, Russia and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian competition as it is about human rights, democracy and disorder in Syria.

The pragmatic calculations include arms sales, a Russian naval supply base at Tartus, fears of a loss of international credibility if an ally is abandoned under pressure from abroad and a sense of frustration and humiliation at how UN authorization of all necessary measures to protect civilians was abused in Libya.

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The political importance of the Sunni–Shiite divide across the Middle East is also vital. The Saudi Arabia and Turkey-led Sunni crescent is firmly pro-Western, indifferent to Russia. Syria is a key Russian bulwark against US interests in the Middle East. Moscow therefore has little to lose in regional relations by backing Syria and reinforcing its role as a defender of Shiite interests. In this context, the Arab League is dominated by Sunnis and not an impartial regional arbiter either.

So a UN veto is a risk-free assertion of Russian boldness and defiance that will not expose its military weakness. It is also a useful reminder that Russia still matters, even as a spoiler, forcing NATO to engage with it instead of ignoring it. If Westerners intervene and leave behind a broken Syria to match the quality of governance in Iraq and Afghanistan and, to some extent, in Libya, Russia will be free of the taint of having incited more chaos and bloodbath. Against this, Washington seems to be betting that the taint of having large amounts of Syrian blood on its hands will soon force Russia into retreat.

The intensifying crisis in Syria is a powerful reminder that the use and nonuse of force alike have real-world consequences, shape the struggle for power and help to determine political contests.

Moreover, the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, which has been cited during the long conflict, acknowledges the duty of everyone who lives in zones of safety to care for those trapped in zones of danger. It is the current instrument of choice for galvanizing a shocked international conscience into collective action to prevent and halt atrocities such as those in Syria. Both China and Russia endorsed R2P at the UN world summit in 2005.

The situation in Libya last year showed a striking depth of consensus on these principles among UN member states, UN officials and other policy and civil society actors. But deep disquiet and outright distrust remains among many players on how far UN authorization for the Libyan operation was stretched. Nor has the continuing mayhem in post-Qaddafi Libya — such as desecrating graves of British Commonwealth troops from the World War II era in Benghazi — quelled unease about the nature of the new regime. Although preferable to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s blighted reign, the dynamic in Libya now is hardly a poster child for successful international intervention.

The price of NATO excesses in Libya has been paid by thousands of dead Syrians, refugees and internally displaced people. Arab and Western countries introduced draft resolutions last October and in February that, relying on UN reports, pinned the blame for the violence on President Bashar al-Assad and foreshadowed regime change to solve the crisis. Britain, France, Germany and the United States introduced another resolution imposing more sanctions on Syria, but it was vetoed by China and Russia on July 19. The two countries remain adamantly opposed to Security Council endorsement of action that could lead to a Libya-type approval for outside military operations in Syria.

Both China and Russia dislike intrusions into sovereign affairs and fear an intensified internal war if external troops interfere. They prefer measures that will calm, not inflame, the crisis. They also have concerns about the moral hazard of interventions, which encourage rebels and secessionists everywhere to increase violence as a ploy to stoke civil wars. This is why they have repeatedly called for an end to violence by all sides, arguing that the only solution is an inclusive Syrian-led process addressing the legitimate hopes of the people, free of attacks and human rights abuses.

The final part of the explanation behind China-Russia policies can be found in broader factors. Just as today’s US policy toward Iran cannot be fully understood without reference to American diplomats in Tehran who were taken hostage by the revolutionary regime in the 1970s, so Russia’s anger cannot be grasped without appreciating its sense of humiliation at how it has been treated since the cold war ended.

Beijing is convinced that Washington has embarked on a containment strategy and will resist any course that brings more of the Middle East’s oil and people under Western influence. It is in China’s best interest to keep energy supplies unhindered from Western control.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australia National University in Canberra and a professor of international relations in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. He was vice rector and senior vice rector of United Nations University (and assistant secretary-general of the UN) from 1998–2007. Educated in India and Canada, he was also a professor of international relations at the University of Otago in New Zealand and professor and head of the Peace Research Center at the Australian National University, while also advising the Australian and New Zealand governments on arms control, disarmament and international security issues.
In addition, Thakur was a principal author of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and a senior adviser on reforms and principal writer of the UN secretary-general’s second reform report (2002). He has written or edited more than 40 books, 400 articles and book chapters. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (London: Routledge, 2011).

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