For the second time in several months, Russia and China have vetoed a UNSC resolution concerning Syria. The double veto last Saturday especially irritated the U.S. and European leaders because they thought that the Arab League’s proposal had been revised several times to meet Russia’s demands. Russia argued that the Western states had rushed the vote, despite its request to wait until after its diplomatic envoys visit Damascus on Tuesday. Both the West and Russia have reasons to maintain this bizarre diplomatic faceoff, but the true reasons are not necessarily the stated ones.
Russia’s hardline position must be understood in the context of its internal and regional politics. The same can be said about the Arab League’s proposal, which called on Assad to step down. Recent history, too, plays a major role in this clash between Russia and the U.S., a replay of the Cold War Era rhetoric.
Importantly, the Russian leadership may face unrest this March if the elections there return Putin to the presidency and his opposition rejects those results. The U.S. has already gone on record supporting Russian protesters. Russia does not want the Arab Spring exported to its streets, and they believe that saving the Syrian regime will be a test of their ability to manage similar crises.
The uprising in Syria is significant for Saudi Arabia, a country eager to weaken Iran. For this reason, Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar, took leading roles in shaping the political and military aspects of this crisis. The Gulf States’ media coverage of the Syrian crisis fails to refer to violent armed groups. Russia, on the other hand, insists that armed groups should take the blame for the increased violence. Syrian state-controlled media blames most of the deaths on armed groups (which it calls terrorists).
Independent journalists, most recently a crew from a Lebanese news outlet—al-Akhbar, described several border towns as being as militarized “forward bases.” The Syrian uprising, initially peaceful, has now been hijacked by Salafi militants who are financed and armed by Saudi Arabia via Lebanon.
Saudi involvement, however, did more than sponsor armed rebel factions. It awakened Russia’s dormant–but not forgotten–memory of the Saudi-American alliance that created the Mujahidin networks in Afghanistan, which in turn defeated the Soviet Union. The Saudi role in the Syrian crisis is eerily similar to the one they played in Afghanistan. Russia, the heir of the Soviet Union, does not want to repeat history and lose its long alliance with Bashar Assad–its most reliable international relationship in a critical region.
Russia has decided it must challenge the replication of the Soviet-Afghanistan scenario. Russia has insisted on four demands before it will support any UNSC resolution:
1: No UNSC resolution authorizing a regime change in Syria.
2. No UNSC resolution authorizing military intervention in Syria.
3. No UNSC resolution banning arms sale to Syria.
4. No UNSC resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s violence without condemning the violence perpetrated by the armed groups.
These are Russia’s red lines. Kremlin leaders are convinced that Saudi Arabia is arming ultra-conservative groups and funneling money and weapons into Syria through its borders with Lebanon and Turkey. Some observers have concluded that Russia has already signaled to Assad that he should use military force to clear the towns. On Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of the Russian foreign intelligence visited Assad to demonstrate their support, and insisted that armed groups should be held responsible for the violence against civilians and government security forces.
The U.S. on the other hand, is mulling the idea of arming opposition groups. On Tuesday, John McCain, ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee said that “we should start considering all options, including arming the opposition.” The Obama administration is “not considering that step right now,” according to White House spokesman Jay Carney. Instead, the administration is “exploring the possibility of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians.” Although the White House played down the suggestion, its lack of a comprehensive strategy for Syria leaves the initiative in the hands of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia–which is thought to be already arming its favorite groups.
Clearly, the Syrian crisis is now turning into a regional and international turf war. The Saudis are eager to use Syria to settle the score with Iran. The United States is determined to see Iran further isolated. Russia refuses to lose its historical ally, Syria. The Muslim Brethren are becoming political opportunists. And the Syrian people are suffering as their government commences what it calls “decisive military action.” Should this conflict become more significantly militarized, the Syrian people’s hope for representative governance will evaporate in the heat of a bloody civil strife fueled by proxy war. The United States in particular ought to be careful pursuing another clandestine military partnership with the Saudis. The last time it did so, it produced al-Qaeda.