Russia and China’s recent veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria has earned them ire and a cold shoulder from many in the West. Interestingly, the resolution, in its final form, really did not contain anything that Syria had not already agreed to in an Arab League plan months earlier. So, what was it then that might have compelled Moscow and Beijing to wield their power? Was it for stated reasons or were there other factors at play?
For Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he also chairs the Middle Eastern Studies program, is was all about precedent.
“Ultimately,” he said, “I think what they are concerned about is that, given their history of large-scale killing of civilians like in Chechnya and the fact that their governments are starting to be challenged, …they perhaps are concerned with the precedent of the United Nations weighing in so strongly against what they see as an internal matter.
Zunes points out that historically, the human rights issues dealt with in the Security Council have been in non-self-governing territories, occupied territories or colonies. “But it’s fairly recent that the U.N. has started to address internal repression of this kind, so perhaps they are concerned about that kind of precedent” said he.
China-Syria: an old friendship
China has said very little on the matter. Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters earlier this week that any action by the Security Council should be consistent with the U.N. Charter and other “relevant norms of international relations.” He also cautioned against any attempt to undermine China’s relationship with the Arab world.
That relationship dates back to the medieval Silk Road, when Syria, the northern gate from Asia to the Middle East, became an important trade hub – both with the Arab world and Europe. Today, China is looking to rebuild that trade route through roadways, railways and pipelines; and, as the world’s largest oil consumer and third largest net oil importer, China is looking to the oil-rich Middle East to supply its growing energy needs.
“Syria was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China,”said Chris Zambelis, an author and Middle East expert with Helios Global, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based risk management group, “and that’s obviously a very important point for the Chinese.”
After the U.S. imposed sanctions on Damascus for alleged support of terrorism and a suspected nuclear program, Syria turned to China as a strategic partner. Since 2004, Damascus and Beijing have signed at least a dozen economic agreements, but the approximately $1.2 billion trade relationship between them is for the most part one-way; in 2010, only a quarter of that amount was spent by China on Syrian goods and products.
Beyond economics, says Zambelis, the two countries share similar views on human rights. Also, he points out that China’s foreign policy is based on the “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence,” adopted in a 1954 treaty with India. These are: Mutual respect of countries’ territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefits and peaceful co-existence.
Zambelis adds that China was a very important leader in the Non-Alignment Movement (MEM), a group of developing nations who came together in 1961, rejecting alignment with any major power or bloc in order to safeguard their own territorial integrity and sovereignty.
It is probably based on this principle that China supports Syria’s position on the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967, while Syria strongly defends China’s claims on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
The fear factor
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He says China’s stance against foreign intervention in Syria or anywhere else stems from fear.
“I think that there is also a concern about the series of chaos in the Arab world,” he said, “and how far that’s going to spread. If you try to get rid of the government in Syria, once that catches on in Lebanon, in Iran, maybe Central Asia, then you’re starting to reach China itself.
Weitz says this is why China has increasingly censored media coverage of the Arab Spring protests: “They, of course, have Tiananmen [Square] in the back of their minds as their real nightmare,” Weitz said, “and that’s sort of what they might be interpreting there [in the Arab world], in the Tiananmen framework, so they want to avoid anything like that.”
Russia-Syria: a lucrative relationship
For the past two months, tens of thousands of Russians have taken to the streets demanding free and fair elections – just weeks ahead of presidential elections which former president and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win.
This week Putin issued a stern warning: “A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs in the past decade. This cannot fail to cause concern … and we must not allow anything like this in our country.”
Syria is Russia’s last true ally in the region, says Mark N. Katz, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University in Virginia, but that, he points out, has not always been the case. The fall of the Soviet Union found Syria unable to pay back the roughly $12 billion it owed Moscow. Russia had the choice of either isolating Syria or working out a deal. It chose the latter.
Moscow had long wanted to play a stronger role in the Middle East peace process and believed it was in a unique position to persuade Syria to make peace with Israel. Moscow has also wanted to expand its only naval presence in the Mediterranean – a run-down naval supply base at Tartus which today it is in the process of revamping:
“If you just look at the map,” Katz said, “the Black Sea fleet is basically boggled in by the Turkish Straights. It has limited the extent to which they can go in and out, and so they would like to have a base in the Mediterranean outside the Straights.
With this in mind, Russia wrote off 73% of what by 2005 was a $13.4 billion tab. This paid off in other dividends: Syria agreed to purchase Russian weapons and pay the remainder of its debt in cash installments over the next ten years. Syria also agreed to buy a short-range missile system for $100 million and began giving Russian companies preferential access to its oil.
Haunted by Chechnya
Katz says Russia feels after it gave an inch on the Security Council over the question of Libya, the West took a mile. “The Russians feel the West got the better of them when it came to Libya,” he said, “and what the Russians fear is that if they, through any even mild resolution, that the West will move in.
Katz says Russia believes the US is naïve to think that if President Bashar al- Assad goes, Syria will democratize. Instead, Russia believes that Sunni Islamists will take power and that they will not only be unsympathetic to Moscow, but might actively support and encourage Chechen rebels.
Russia has condemned the crisis in Syria – but accuses the West of ignoring the role of the armed opposition in the violence. This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Syrian President Basher al-Assad, who promised to hold a dialogue with the Syrian opposition. But the latter have rejected the idea. For its part, China says it will keep talking with Syrian opposition groups after a delegation visited Beijing for talks this week.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is considering its options for intervening in the Syrian crisis - reportedly even the possibility of military action, if all other avenues are exhausted.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.