By Habibe Ozdal
The draft resolution, which envisaged the enforcement of international sanctions against Syria in case of the Assad government’s insistence on using violence against protestors, has been rejected with the vetos of China and Russia. India, South Africa, Brazil, and Lebanon had abstained from voting.
This anticipated veto by Russia can be defined as consistent in the context of Russian foreign policy.While the reasons behind this are in question, another unanswered question is what the difference is between Syria and Libya. How could Moscow using its right to veto the enforcement of sanctions against Syria after having abstained from voting on the no-fly zone over Libya be explained?
Reasons for Veto on Syria
Some factors should be put into consideration in order to explain Russia having exercised its veto right in the United Nations Security Council. First, due to its foreign policy, Russia has a general tendency to perceive civil insurgencies as internal issues of countries in which they take place. With its continuing intervention in the North Caucasus regarding stability, Russia supports the Assad government with the underlying assumption that the state is the sole legitimate authority with the right to intervene in civil insurgencies. Russia and China reached an agreement, also in the context of the United Nations Security Council, on the principle that external intervention in the domestic issues of countries should not be supported. Through this, on the one hand Russia pursues a consistent policy by empathizing the principle, and on the other hand, attempts to strengthen its position in the Middle East.
Second, Syria is its most important partner in the Middle East. This situation is not limited to military agreements -which reached four billion dollars as reported in the Russian media- and trade partnerships between Syria and Russia. Moscow’s naval base in Tartus and Damascus’ support in the Georgia War, are much more important than exports to Syria. Additionally, recent developments in the Middle East also remind of the importance of the Tartus base for Russia. This base has been recently reconstructed.
Third, as Neil MacFarquhar denotes in the New York Times, some factions assume that certain Western countries, especially the U.S., support groups in Syria closer to them. He anticipates a pro-Western government after Assad. This situation also affects policies in the Kremlin. It could be argued that these concerns result in opposition to the sunctions against Asad regime by financial precautions by Western countries.
Moscow’s veto on implementing sanctions against Syria and its simultaneous neutrality over the military intervention in Libya gave rise to the question of “What is the difference of Syria?” in its wake. An additional factor comes into the fore in this Libya case. To express in official discourse, Vitali Curkin, permanent delegate to the UN, pointed out that “the ceasefire in Libya has turned out to be a large-scale civil war.” Proceeding from this point, Moscow employs the argument that neither peace nor consensus could be achieved through external intervention in Libya, and that even civil casualties have been experienced due to the military interference of NATO. This situation functions as grounds for Russia’s veto.
There are interesting arguments regarding the possible change in the balance of power in Syria and Russia’s related plan of action, which employs a “live and see” policy (as it did when civil insurgencies emerged in the Middle East and North Africa) and adjusts to conditions. For instance, Aleksandr Shumilin, one of the leading Middle East specialists in Russia, argues that a possible change in the balance of power in Syrian conflicts for the benefit of the opposition bloc would also change the attitude of Russia. Considering the changes in the region in last nine months, it is observed that the international actors and especially regional ones have all revised their Middle East policies and begun to adopt new perspectives. In this regard, Russia’s attempt to maintain its position in the region without risking its advantages can be understood. Thus, a change of attitude as mentioned by Shumilin would not be surprising.
As a result, it is not an easy endeavor for Russia to deal with regime change in its most critical partner in the Arab world. As it is mostly underlined, the cancellation of already existing trade partnerships based on arms trade would result in a significant disadvantage for Russia. However, considering the regional importance of Syria and its particular significance for Russia, an overthrow of the Assad government and its replacement with a pro-Western one would mean a substantial loss for Russia.
Habibe Ozdal, USAK Center for Eurasian Studies