Russia and China Challenge the West on Syria: What Implications for Iran?

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Allison Joyce / Reuters

The U.N. Security Council meets to discuss a European-Arab draft resolution endorsing an Arab League plan calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up power in New York Feb. 4, 2012.

The breach among the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council in Saturday’s vote on Syria’s increasingly bloody power struggle could have profound implications for Syria’s immediate future. But it may also signal trouble ahead for international diplomacy on Iran.

Russia and China prompted a furious reaction from the U.S. (as well as France and Britain, and Arab League countries) for vetoing a resolution watered down to accommodate their concerns by removing the explicit demand for President Bashar Assad to cede power. Russia complained that the resolution was “unbalanced” because it didn’t make sufficient demands on opposition groups to end attacks on the regime. Syria’s power struggle has certainly come to resemble a civil war in recent weeks as the regime’s willingness to deploy its armed forces to suppress challenges to its authority have prompted an increasingly militarized response. But the international community’s failure to agree on terms for a political solution underscore the likelihood of a more protracted and bloody settling of accounts in Syria.

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The veto left Western and Arab countries seeking ways of supporting the Syrian opposition outside of a U.N. framework. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on “friends of a democratic Syria” to coordinate efforts to support the opposition — although there’s no appetite in Western capitals for any repeat of even the relatively limited NATO air war in support of Libya’s rebellion, and Secretary Clinton was careful to specify the need to promote peaceful democratic opposition, even if she expressed understanding for those who chose to take up arms in response to Assad’s repression.

The military option among  the opposition is fast eclipsing hopes for a negotiated transition to democracy, and amid an escalating war it’s also to be expected that some regional players could seek ways to boost the fighting capacity of an opposition currently heavily outgunned by the regime. In response to rumors that Qatar has already begun secreting arms to rebel forces, the country’s minister of foreign affairs told Al Jazeera: “It is not the position of Qatar or the Arab League to supply arms. Our mandate, our clear mandate, is to stop the killing in Syria, put the regime with the opposition at one table, and start a serious dialogue to bring Syria out of this chaos.” Failing such an outcome, however, it’s worth remembering that the tiny but wealthy emirate has played the leading role in galvanizing the Arab League to take a more forceful stance, and also that in the Libya case, it went far beyond what was required by the U.N. resolution authorizing a NATO-led air campaign (which Qatar’s air force joined) but also reportedly sent weapons to insurgent fighters and eventually deployed special forces to help organize the rebel assault that captured Tripoli.

But the strength of the regime’s security forces, and the sectarian basis on which it claims support — relying more on the Allawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities’ fears for their prospects under a predominantly Sunni opposition than on love for Assad — suggest it may not fall nearly as easily as Gaddafi did.

Assad and his supporters expressed satisfaction with Russia and China’s veto, and as if to prove the point of its critics, regime forces on Sunday continued a ferocious artillery assault on the opposition stronghold of Homs, where activists claim hundreds have been killed in recent days.

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But Russia — which continues to arm the Assad regime — appears to be making diplomatic moves of its own, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — accompanied by President Dmitry Medvedev and Russia’s intelligence chief — due to visit Damascus on Tuesday for talks with Assad, in which the Russian foreign ministry says they will press for “urgent reforms” to “stabilize the situation.”

Just what Russia will demand of Syria remains unclear — Lavrov last week told Australian TV that “We never said that President Assad remaining in power is the solution to the crisis” — nor whether the regime is willing to make a political accommodation with the rebellion. But having wielded its veto and continued its arms shipments, Moscow certainly has more leverage over Assad than most outside players.

Still, the growing body count most eloquently frames the question of whether a conflict that has taken on the form of open civil war can be resolved through a political settlement based on conditions that pertained before it broke out. Not only has Assad shown no inclination to stand down and instead taken a military path, but there’s no single opposition leadership that can credibly claim to speak for all those fighting the regime on the ground. The Syrian National Council may enjoy diplomatic favor in foreign capitals, but its authority has been questioned by opposition groups on the ground, and it has no control over the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit organization of military defectors waging armed struggle against the regime.

By breaking with the Western powers and wielding a veto at the risk of considerable opprobrium, Russia and China may be signaling a new willingness to challenge Western influence in shaping Middle East outcomes. Their motivations range from domestic political and economic concerns to a geostrategic calculation that their own interests are served by limiting Western intervention in the region. Washington’s Russian “reset” has not produced a strategic rapprochement with Moscow, while its Asia policy is now effectively premised on a strategic rivalry with China — both countries may also be becoming more assertive in challenging the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.

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And the willingness of Beijing and Moscow to break with their Western counterparts among the Permanent Five (veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council) on Syria also casts a shadow over the Obama Administration’s efforts to isolate and pressure Iran over its nuclear program.

Russia and China have long made clear that their perception of the Iran issue is quite different from that of the Western powers — while they believe Iran is required to comply with its NPT obligations, they don’t believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons or that it’s program poses a threat to international security, and they have demanded a greater emphasis on dialogue with Tehran in resolving the issue and addressing its underlying strategic rivalry.

The Obama Administration has worked hard to win Russian and Chinese support for a limited set of Security Council sanctions, even though both countries have bluntly rejected compliance with the unilateral measures against Iran’s energy sector adopted by the U.S. and its European allies.

The Syria vote served up a reminder of just how unlikely it is that the Security Council will pass any significant escalation of sanctions against Iran, much less provide legal authorization for the military option President Obama insists has not been taken off the table.

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Russia and China are part of the structure through which the Western powers negotiate with Iran — the “Permanent Five + One” (the one being Germany, which is not a permanent member by virtue of having been on the losing side of World War II).

The Council vote will have certainly reassured Iran that there are significant strategic differences between the Western powers and Moscow and Beijing. It may also portend a more assertive effort by Russia to sell its own version of a compromise on Iran, which has thus far not been embraced by Western powers.

Whereas Russia’s position on Syria has few regional backers, it’s stance on Iran — particularly the emphasis on dialogue over sanctions and military threats — may be closer to that of some of the regional powers most willing to confront the Assad regime, including Turkey and Qatar.

Qatari officials speaking at a security conference in Munich at the weekend rejected talk of military action or even of tightening sanctions against Iran, instead urging stepped up negotiations. Turkey’s foreign minister took a similar position on Iran, even as he criticized Moscow and Beijing for their Syria veto, which he branded a reflexive Cold War hostility to the West. Perhaps. But because the Cold War-proper is long over, the latest developments may signal a new era of geopolitical competition with significant consequences for the Middle East.

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