Why would China and Russia veto a security council resolution on Syria?
August 29, 2013 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Like most people, I've been reading a lot of commentary on the situation in Syria the last couple of days, and what the options are for the US and Western Europe. One thing that consistently comes up is that even if the US or somebody else were to invade for humanitarian reasons, that invasion would be illegal because there hasn't been a security council resolution authorizing it. And there's not going to be a security council resolution, because both China and Russia would veto it. But I haven't seen a clear explanation why.

I'm assuming that the reason for this is that both China and Russia has business interests in Syria which Assad has supporter (oil?). But even so, given that the country is in the midst of a devastating civil war, that can't be good for business. Wouldn't it be in their best interests to find a way to end this conflict as soon as possible, and if the western powers feel a powerful need to intervene, why not let them?

Any way, clearly there's something I'm missing. I just don't understand why China and Russia would care enough about this to piss off the rest of the world.
posted by gkhan to Law & Government (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, I was quite perplexed by this as well. There must be a better explanation than "they are the Bad Guys and that's what they do."

This NPR link did a pretty good job outlining the "whys"

I think it boils down to:

I) Countries with spotty humanitarian records are hesitant about setting a precedent for humanitarian interventions.
II) Russia has a significant economic interest in maintaining Assad's regime in the form of military contracts and that strategic Mediterranean base.
III) Russia has a vested interest in opposing instability in the Middle East and ESPECIALLY instability that benefits Islamist movements, given its own struggles with Muslim populations.
posted by cacofonie at 11:39 AM on August 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm assuming that the reason for this is that both China and Russia has business interests in Syria which Assad has supporter (oil?). But even so, given that the country is in the midst of a devastating civil war, that can't be good for business. Wouldn't it be in their best interests to find a way to end this conflict as soon as possible, and if the western powers feel a powerful need to intervene, why not let them?

They have a good relationship with the current regime; any end to the civil war that results in the Assad regime falling stands a good chance of resulting in a new power base that's actively hostile to them, especially because they've been so warm to the current regime. Accepting higher risk/chaos in the short term might not be their first choice, but a swift end to the conflict that puts one or more rebel groups in power isn't what they want either. The idea is to maximize the chances that Assad will come out on top and the status quo can be maintained, and without the ability/desire to turn this into a flat-out proxy war, ensuring western inaction is a key component of that.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:41 AM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Think of the world as a chessboard.

China and Russia are making moves against their historical opponents because, their opponents are making moves near them (the U.S.' recent and very adventurous/alarming roles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and soon Syria). The Mideast and South Asia are particularly divided between U.S., Russia, and China in spheres of direct influence. Losing a precious client state is a big deal.

Geo politics are far more substantial to leaders because they usually involve the long term (and short-term) survival of interests that often are directly related to survival of the nation itself. Humanitarian policies and objectives are far far below on the totem pole, sadly.
posted by Kruger5 at 11:44 AM on August 29, 2013


Assad hasn't done anything that China and Russia don't reserve the right to do themselves.
posted by zjacreman at 12:02 PM on August 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Doesn't anyone read Machiavelli anymore? Putin isn't Syria's friend. Iran is Syria's friend. And Russia and Iran have competing interests.

Iran has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves.

Russia holds the world's largest natural gas reserves

"International sanctions are redefining the Iranian energy sector, and the lack of foreign investment and technology is affecting the sector profoundly."

Russia exerts an inordinate control because she is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe. Anything that's good in Russia is good because of this. Russia is fine with the sanctions on Iran. The status quo keeps prices up and competition at bay. For Vladimir Putin I don't think it is any more complicated than this.
posted by three blind mice at 12:13 PM on August 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Russia has a naval base in Tartus, and doesn't want to lose that if Assad loses power.

Russia and China are both opposed, for geopolitical reasons, to any military action that broadens in the influence of the United States in strategically important areas. Why let your potential future adversary gain more friends/bases/influence in an area that holds a lot of oil?

Russia and China are both opposed to intervention on humanitarian grounds because they both like to do very inhumane things to their own populations, and don't want an international norm to develop that sees the international community sticking up for people who are being killed by their governments.
posted by Dasein at 1:05 PM on August 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


While I don't think China and Russia are so pure as to be against war for absolute moral reasons, there is the fact that a "humanitarian" invasion is a morally indefensible farce and a war crime in which hundreds of thousands of civilians will surely die only to end up making things worse for everyone (cf, Iraq, Afghanistan).

So maybe it's more that Russia and China have a low opinion of US imperialism and aren't keen to see its continued use.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:27 PM on August 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Dasein: " Why let your potential future adversary gain more friends/bases/influence in an area that holds a lot of oil?"

From what I have read so far, even if Syrian Rebels win, US is not likely to gain a lot of influence there. A lot of these rebels are islamists and don't like US at all.

The idea that post-Asad, US will have a lot more influence over Syria is a bit difficult to believe.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 3:04 PM on August 29, 2013


Why would China and Russia veto a security council resolution on Syria?

Russia (quite rightly so) sees no difference in moral terms between the Assad regime and the sectarian opposition the US supports.

Russia also does not recognize the western (US, Britain, France) prerogative to meddle unilaterally in the affairs of the region.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:18 PM on August 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The idea that post-Asad, US will have a lot more influence over Syria is a bit difficult to believe.

Maybe, but Assad is well-disposed to the Russians. His replacement would not be. So it's still a net negative for Russia. Why take that risk?

a "humanitarian" invasion is a morally indefensible farce and a war crime in which hundreds of thousands of civilians will surely die only to end up making things worse for everyone (cf, Iraq, Afghanistan)

Iraq and Afghanistan were not humanitarian interventions. Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya were, and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved, not lost, in those interventions.

Russia also does not recognize the western (US, Britain, France) prerogative to meddle unilaterally in the affairs of the region.

This is begging the question. It wouldn't be unilateral (well, actually, multilateral, since you're describing a Western coalition) if Russia and China granted approval at the U.N. Russia's stance has very little to do with a principled defence of sovereignty and a lot to do with self-interest.
posted by Dasein at 4:45 PM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


a "humanitarian" invasion is a morally indefensible farce and a war crime in which hundreds of thousands of civilians will surely die only to end up making things worse for everyone (cf, Iraq, Afghanistan)

At the risk of derailing, it's really quite important to note that the causus belli for Iraq and Afghanistan were unrelated to humanitarian concerns.

The US invaded Afghanistan because it was sheltering/supporting Al Qaida, who had perpetrated attacks on US soil that killed thousands.

The US invaded Iraq because - ostensibly - it had WMDs that could be used against the US or its allies. The fact that said WMDs were never found made things... complicated, and led to a lot of war supporters re-emphasizing the (very real) awfulness of the Baathist regime toward its own civilians, the slaughter of ethnic Kurds, etc. But the basic argument for "let's drop some bombs" was not originally one about humanitarian concerns - it was very specifically about chemical and biological and maybe even nuclear weapons.

The success or failure of those military adventures aside, the arguments in favor of invasion, as made by the Bush administration at the time of said invasion, treated humanitarian concerns as a "bonus" that might help draw liberal support - not the core basis for the invasion.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:49 PM on August 29, 2013


first, no one cares about human rights, it's just theater to justify the position you want to take for other reasons. i remember reading an article that included this about 10 secrets diplomats don't want to admit.

second, it comes down to being able to project power. think: having the ability to attack anywhere in the world with whatever you want. that's the ideal scenario. airplanes and ships can only travel so far until they need to resupply, which means you have to have bases located around the world. this is why america still has bases in germany, japan, and bahrain.

syria provides this service to russia and presumably china.

even if syria is now not so tactically useful, they have an incentive to protect their guy so that other clients will feel secure in their relationship.
posted by cupcake1337 at 9:13 PM on August 29, 2013


Maybe, but Assad is well-disposed to the Russians. His replacement would not be. So it's still a net negative for Russia. Why take that risk?

Indeed, if anything, Syrian Islamists are more likely to be hostile to Russia than to the US. Russia is fighting its own battle within its own borders against Islamist rebel militias, and Islamists are responsible for some horrific attacks (Moscow theater, Beslan school) within Russia proper.

So, no, Russia is in no way pleased at the prospect of a rebel victory in Syria, whether or not that means an Islamist government, as it could result in a country capable of offering, officially or unofficially, substantial support to rebel factions in Russia.

China has less prominent issues with Islamists but is also fighting a battle of its own.

I just don't understand why China and Russia would care enough about this to piss off the rest of the world.

Here's the thing. Despite various metrics of decline, the US is the sole superpower on the planet right now, and the only one capable of projecting meaningful military force in all seas and on all continents. As such, even though we may have trade and reasonably pragmatic relations with both Russia and China, we have outsized influence on world affairs. Neither of those two has the same ability to in very loose terms "win" conflicts with the US on a regular basis, but they do have the practical ability, both through their Security Council membership, bilateral relations with other powers, and their own growing (though at times ineffectual) soft power geopolitics, to act as spoilers. That is, much like certain games give you a range of victory conditions, these powers have an interest in maximizing their own influence and minimizing the positive effects of the outcome for the US (and/or allies). Even if they only chip away at our reputation or briefly embarrass or diplomatically pin us, it's still a sort of points win.

In some cases, of course, they could just be disingenuously positioning themselves for purposes of bargaining on some other issue, which will make Syria's people essentially subject to some witheringly cynical horse-trading.

For Putin personally, I think it's important to note, there is great satisfaction in frustrating the US and some degree of domestic mandate from doing so.

it's just theater to justify the position you want to take for other reasons

Well, going back to Polybius, even, there has been a distinction recognized between the cause of a conflict and the pretext for hostilities. (Pretext has taken on a very negative implication in modern times, as if it weren't real, but Polybius meant it to be essentially something like a triggering event.) The majority of diplomats at least have the ability, if not the preference, to think in realpolitik terms about what interest their own country has and how to achieve desired outcomes, regardless of what is said on the surface or reported by the media.

Wouldn't it be in their best interests to find a way to end this conflict as soon as possible

For this there needs to be an ASCII icon for a very hollow laugh. Really, just think of how lucrative the arms sales are and you will understand that "bad for business" only applies to certain kinds of business. In the words of Smedley Butler, war is a racket, and this is partly why.
posted by dhartung at 4:21 AM on August 30, 2013


This question is quite the Rorschach test.
posted by nosila at 8:11 AM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Historically both countries have experienced significant invasions or foreign 'meddling'. They are reluctant to do that publicly now as a result of their histories, current assets in any number of countries including Syria, and because the lone strategy that has been effective in countering the United States is pushing the whole hegemony angle.

I should note that the latter has been effective in part because the popular definition of hegemony is very different in the US as compared to internationally. We think of the USSR's control over Ukraine and the like, whereas internationally it is as simple as knowing that their country will be less successful than surrounding countries if it does not sign up for US/Western free trade programs, like them. Building an ongoing and successful counter-example, such as Ecuador's success, is part of the overall goal, and the 'bloc' needs to stay together in order to provide that example.

Bush II's 'Axis of Evil' was actually somewhat accurate in that sense. Between non-aligned nations, former/current communist, and dictatorships, the list used to be considered as: Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, and Syria. Russia and China don't talk much any longer (the great Communist schism) and have suffered political changes. Putin has actually seemed to be copying China's oligarchical form of government though - just replace princes with old KGB friends. Iraq and Libya fell. Venezuela and Zimbabwe are new. Ecuador and Peru too. Syria's control over Lebanon is ebbing back and forth, but it also provides resources to the Palestine side of the Israel/Palestine conflict, "checking" US support of Israel, and it's this conflict that has most effectively driven the axis' marketing efforts. If it falls, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine will be feared to be won by the Western side, which would be pretty bad for the group. These are half of the widespread repercussions they keep alluding to. The other half is what they'll do to stop it.

Just for fun: Now, read then Emir Al-Thani's speech to the 67th UN General Assembly on the Arab Spring. The context he places it in is one of a natural evolution for any country/area, but the main difference is when this happens in the modern age, it takes place on a stage of sorts. We're watching every Sunni/Shia battle and drawing conclusions from them, when it's only the war as a whole that should count. So following the Arab League's lead is a great idea, but they've pointed at the UN's Security Council (SC), which is deadlocked due to vetos from the sides. It says something about the stability of the SC, especially given how long countries like Germany have been pushing for it to be changed. Now that no one trusts the US and is looking towards the SC for leadership, expect the change drumbeat to increase.
posted by jwells at 12:18 PM on August 30, 2013


From Max Fisher's "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask," in the Washington Post:
The four big reasons that Russia wants to protect Assad, the importance of which vary depending on who you ask, are: (1) Russia has a naval installation in Syria, which is strategically important and Russia’s last foreign military base outside of the former Soviet Union; (2) Russia still has a bit of a Cold War mentality, as well as a touch of national insecurity, which makes it care very much about maintaining one of its last military alliances; (3) Russia also hates the idea of “international intervention” against countries like Syria because it sees this as Cold War-style Western imperialism and ultimately a threat to Russia; (4) Syria buys a lot of Russian military exports and Russia needs the money.
posted by willbaude at 2:26 PM on August 30, 2013


Why would China and Russia veto a security council resolution on Syria?

For the same reason the United States vetos security council resolutions about Israel.

One and all are looking after their own geo-political interests.
posted by Mister Bijou at 12:53 AM on August 31, 2013




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