Massacre in Syria as Russia defends Assad
A UN attempt to put pressure on Syrian president Bashar al Assad has been blocked. Now, tanks and artillery are destroying a rebel city. Why has Russia taken the side of a tyrant?
This weekend, the highest council of the UN met to decide the fate of Syria. On the table was the draft of a resolution condemning the murderous violence of Syria’s president, Bashar al Assad.
That resolution would have called on Assad to step down. It might, its backers hoped, have put enough pressure on his allies to fracture the fragile Syrian government, opening the way for a peaceful end to the country’s civil war.
But the resolution did not pass the UN vote. On one side, supporting it, were 13 countries. On the other, only two: China and Russia, who vetoed the motion and, in doing so, gave a precious lifeline to Assad’s vicious regime.
On Monday, right on cue, a new Syrian massacre began. Artillery fire killed dozens in the city of Homs – a centre of resistance to the regime – as Assad’s troops launched a fresh offensive. At press time, the bombardment was still under way, and tanks and heavy machine guns had joined the assault.
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign minister has arrived in the Syrian capital for talks with the dictator. He has not managed (or, many people suspect, even tried) to stop the violence.
Why would Russia defy world opinion and enrage the Arab world by supporting Assad? There are several possible reasons.
The veto might be simple revenge. Russia felt swindled when a UN resolution on Libya led to regime change (and the loss of valuable oil contracts with Gaddafi). This was an opportunity to hit back.
It might also be hard-headed pragmatism. Assad is Russia’s only remaining ally in the Middle East. Syria provides Russia with a strategic Mediterranean port, and is a good customer for its weapons. Losing Assad would be bad for business.
But some foreign policy experts see a deeper strategy. By standing up for Syria, they argue, Russia becomes the leader of what has been described as the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – the group of countries like Iran or Venezuela that do whatever they can to make life difficult for the West.
The wrong side
If so, some realists argue, the Russian veto might not be so foolish after all. Like it or not, the world is still full of dictators who have just been sent a powerful message: whatever you do to your people, however much the West may stamp its feet, Russia will be a reliable partner to the end. The veto may cause anger now, but it will bring in new allies in the long run.
Idealists hope that the realists are wrong. They believe that by casting itself as the friend of tyrants, Russia has put itself on the wrong side of history. Slowly but surely, they say, freedom is spreading – and the more countries are free, the more Russia will find itself alone.
- Has Russia made a smart decision backing Assad?
- UN action has been blocked. Could – and should – countries like the US act anyway, on their own?
- What would you have said to the UN meeting on Syria? Prepare a one-minute speech and deliver it to your class.
- Write down your top five rules for how a country’s foreign policy should be run. How do your rules compare to others in your class?
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Q & A
- So what happens now?
- It isn’t easy to predict. Most say the failure of the UN will intensify the Syrian civil war, as Syrian opposition leaders realise they are on their own. Some are already talking about arming rebels – but Russia will continue to arm Assad’s soldiers. Syria’s conflict could take on a serious international dimension.
- It all ties in with what is sometimes called the ‘Arab Cold War’: the growing tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims across the whole of the Middle East. Shia majority countries like Iran and Iraq tend to support Assad (also Shia, although most Syrians are Sunni) and hate the West. Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are (generally) Western allies. Meanwhile, many of these countries face the danger of internal religious strife.
- Civil war
- The uprising in Syria started with peaceful protests eleven months ago, during the Arab Spring. Russia argues that current violence should be blamed on both Assad and the opposition, but opposition fighters did not take up arms until long after Assad had started killing and torturing protesters.
- China has been less vocal in its support of the Syrian regime. The Chinese veto was based on that country’s longstanding commitment to the principle of non-interference with other countries’ affairs.
- The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, China, the USA, the UK and France, all have the power to veto resolutions that come before the council, blocking them instantly however much support they may have received.
- Russia allowed UN Resolution 1973, on Libya, to pass without a veto. The resolution allowed ‘all necessary means’ to be used to protect Libyan civilians. France, the UK and the USA interpreted that to mean they could use air power to attack Libyan government forces and support rebel fighters. Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown.