What reset? What Arab Spring? Veto of Syria resolution reminds world of its Russia-China problem

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have lambasted Russia’s veto of a Security Council resolution on Syria, calling it a “travesty,” but did she really think for a moment that Moscow was going to ditch an old political ally?

Did Hillary moreover really believe that Beijing was going to throw a business partner under the proverbial bus at the UN? Or was the U.S. convinced that a watered down draft resolution meeting Moscow’s demands “half way” had a chance in the wind tunnel of the Security Council?

Members vote on a resolution on Syria in the United Nations Security Council. /AFP

Using a rare double veto in the Security Council, Russia and China sent an emphatic and predictable message to the Arab world’s peace plan for Syria: NYET!

Although the vote clearly seems to put Moscow and Beijing at odds with the winds of change sweeping the Middle East, it equally shows that unapologetic realpolitik rules in Russia and in China.

Not to forget, back in October a Western backed resolution on human rights in Syria was forcefully shot down in the Council by another Russian/Chinese double veto.

American UN Ambassador Susan Rice was “disgusted” by the vote. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe described the Russian/Chinese veto as a “moral stain” on the UN.

The UN Security Council was pressing to implement an Arab League peace plan which would defuse the violence and set the fragile framework for a political solution in Syria’s year long domestic revolt.

Importantly the draft resolution was backed by such heavy hitters as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Qatar. It equally saw strong support from Britain, the USA, and France, the former colonial power and impressively won 13 of 15 Council votes, including India.

Significantly the West stands alongside most of the Arab World in trying to resolve the bloody crisis in Syria. This presents a positive political image.

Portugal’s Foreign Minister Paulo Portas, addressing the Council earlier in the week memorably stated: “What is happening in Syria is of such seriousness; the inaction of the international community is so shocking; an Arab solution is so urgent; and a decision of the United Nations is so essential.”

Though the Russians clearly signaled earlier that they would use their veto, the U.S. and France assumed that by diluting the draft resolution to appease Russia, that Moscow would “abstain” in the vote. There would be no such back-down since Moscow and Beijing claim that the resolution supports “regime change” and could open the back door to military intervention as in Libya last year.

Moscow’s intransigence reminded me of the late great American UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s comments on a UN membership standoff in 1975; “The balance of force was with the Soviets and they would give nothing.”

Given the ongoing violence in Syria, the French (facing presidential elections in April), were pushing for an early vote which while stressing impassioned drama and resoluteness, nearly guaranteed the Russian backlash. Equally Russia is playing the “Tough Guy” and presenting precisely the image Vladimir Putin wants to send both domestically and overseas in the countdown to the Russian presidential elections.

While anger and rage seethed through the Arab world in the wake of the double Russian/Chinese veto complete with Russian flag burnings and protests at Syrian diplomatic legations, (was this really part of a sophisticated diplomatic plan to make the West look like the “good guys?”), the practical effect derailed perhaps the last credible UN effort to stop the slide to a Syrian civil war with all the trappings. The Russians may have earned the enmity of many Arabs, but Moscow is playing hardball geopolitics.

Syria under the Assad family rule has been a Soviet client state since the 1960’s and still remains a close Russian ally.

The Russian navy has port rights in Syria and stands as the major weapons supplier to the Damascus regime. China has become a business partner of the Syrians too, buying up oil which is being boycotted by the Europeans.

Since the start of the uprising between Assad’s religious minority regime and a spectrum of secular and Islamic opponents, nearly 6,000 mostly civilian protesters have been killed. Following the vetoes, Assad’s regime may feel invulnerable to foreign criticism.

France’s UN delegate Gerard Araud warned, “Russia and China had made themselves complicit in a policy of repression carried out by the Assad regime.”

For the United States, the question goes beyond the Syrian crisis and revisits and indeed questions the vaunted “reset in relations” with Russia which Hillary Clinton promised early in the Obama administration. Was the “reset” for better relations or superficially changed relations?

Lacking an Arab-backed UN resolution to defuse the escalating Syrian violence, it now appears that both the Assad regime and the embittered and emboldened domestic opposition will see a military solution as the only road to change in Damascus.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.