The crisis in Syria is entering a new and more deadly phase. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for the first time in 16 months, has characterized the violence as a civil war. Fighting between government-backed forces and opposition rebels (who are now better armed and organized) has now reached the streets of Damascus. These clashes resulted in the temporary closing of a highway between the capital and its international airport (in the south of the city).
There have also been more high-level defections from the Assad government, raising questions about the sustainability of the current Syrian regime. Nawaf Fares, a former Syrian ambassador to Iraq and the most senior defector to date, told a BBC correspondent that the Assad government might consider using chemical weapons (which it is known to possess) if it is backed into a corner.
Meanwhile, in New York, a new showdown is looming in the UN Security Council chamber between western states and Russia, the staunch ally of the government in Damascus. In late April of this year, members of the Security Council managed to put aside their differences to pass Resolution 2043, which created a 90-day, 300-person United Nations supervisory mission (UNSMIS) to monitor the implementation of Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. At the end of this week, on July 20, the mission’s mandate will expire.
What is likely to replace it? Britain has tabled a draft resolution that threatens non-military sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s government unless it withdraws troops and heavy weapons from population centres within the next 10 days. Western states have indicated that if Russia fails to back this proposal – which would invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter – they would have to rethink the future of UNSMIS.
Does this move amount to “blackmail,” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed? Probably not, but it does represent an attempt at linkage that is designed to pressure Moscow to consider sanctions. The policy is unlikely to achieve its intended result, as Russian diplomats (under the instructions of Putin) are digging in their heels rather than “blinking” in this game of chicken. Lavrov reiterated on Monday that the focus should be on creating a transitional governing body (which includes members of both the opposition and the regime), rather than on trying to persuade Assad to resign. The Syrian president is not still in power because Russia has been backing him, Lavrov claimed, but because there remains a significant portion of the population that supports his rule.
In a recent blog for the New York Review of Books (How Syria Divided the World), Michael Ignatieff claims that Russian intransigence is symptomatic of a deeper malaise at the heart of the international community. While the great powers on the Security Council managed to come together at various points during the past two decades to address humanitarian crises that threatened international peace and security, now Russia and China are viewing situations like Syria through their own authoritarian prisms. The rebels represent a challenge to ruling authority that cannot be tolerated or supported from the outside. For Russia, in other words, Syrian rebels are like Chechnyan rebels.
Kofi Annan’s mistake, according to Ignatieff, was that he assumed Russia would want to make itself an “indispensable ally” in the West’s efforts to create a post-Assad transition. But what makes Syria a “hinge-moment” for the world, Ignatieff argues, “is that Russia and China are proving that they have no strategic interest in transitions beyond dictatorship, not just in Syria but anywhere else.”
While I agree that we are witnessing a stark illustration of the limits of concerted council action, I’m less inclined to point the finger solely at Russia (or, indeed, at a Russian-Chinese coalition).
It’s clear that past precedent is having an enormous impact on Russian thinking. In a recent interview with the BBC, Moscow’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, hit back at western diplomats’ critique of Russian policy on Syria, claiming that there was little evidence that sanctions would work (given that those currently in place are having minimal effect). But he also explicitly referred to previous episodes within the Security Council, over Iraq in the spring of 2003 and over Libya in the spring of 2011, to argue that the West’s use of Chapter VII in resolutions had a habit of translating into forceful acts of regime change. “Creative minds” in western capitols, he argued, had proven that they could “interpret the hell out of resolutions” to achieve their desired ends. So, just as Russia demonstrated resolve over Iraq, and refused to give its backing to the so-called second resolution, so, too, is it now refusing to be drawn into what he called “forceful geopolitical engineering” in Syria. He also expressed incredulity as to why, after Iraq, the West would want to do it again.
There are clearly differences between these episodes. So far, the West has made clear it is not seeking military intervention in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insists that her government simply wants to put “the full weight of the Security Council” behind efforts to end the violence, with the hope that such a symbolic gesture will have some effect on officials in Damascus.
The trouble is, however, that Russia and, to a lesser extent, China simply don’t believe this. History tells them that sanctions are a trapdoor for military force. And recent history – the Libya campaign – tells them that authorization of “all necessary means” (under Chapter VII) leads to forceful regime change. They claim that they were duped into supporting a civilian protection mission in Libya that was really designed at removing Colonel Gadhafi from power. Protestations that this is a selective reading of history will have little effect. It is perceptions that are all important.
When the West (particularly the U.S.) was in ascendance during those heady days of liberal internationalism, perhaps it needed to apply more nuanced diplomacy to build a sense of common interest and common purpose with states such as China and Russia. Now, as Ignatieff notes, the West is in decline, and so both Russia and China feel emboldened to take a stand. But Ignatieff also seems to be suggesting that there is no common interest to forge. “Our” world order is not necessarily compatible with “their” world order.
I haven’t yet reached that conclusion. The overwhelming interest here is to end the violence and further militarization of the conflict. Furthermore, for western states, there is a broader interest in ensuring that we don’t force Russia and China together into a hostile authoritarian coalition. History tells us that Russia and China do co-operate, when it serves their purposes. But that co-operation is not pre-ordained – genuine differences and areas of competition remain between them. Let’s be sure our diplomacy doesn’t unwittingly make their like-mindedness on this issue a permanent union.