On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court for investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the country's civil war, which has now been raging for three years. This is just latest in an ongoing deadlock among world powers who all have a role in failing to meaningfully address the crisis.
Thursday's vote was the fourth time that Russia and China have blocked United Nations Security Council action on Syria. Putin is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Syria is essentially a Russian client state. They are no more interested in losing that relationship than they were in the Ukraine. On that level, the situation is akin to the U.S. defense of places like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia in recent decades, which have been run by similarly thuggish regimes.
China's relationship with Syria is more complicated. It is one of Syria's largest importers and Syria is an important trading hub in the Middle East for the world economic power. China has said that foreign countries should not interfere in Syria's internal affairs, which has been a pretty consistent position that might have as much to do with the Chinese not wanting to set such a precedent – especially considering its situation with Tibet – as it does with its direct stake in the matter.
Also, China abstained in the U.N. Security Council's resolution on Libya and sort of experienced a loss/loss in being condemned by the West for not getting on board, while being viewed by other interests as having abandoned Libya. This time they probably figured hedging in Syria's favor was most pragmatic, when considering all of their interests.
For its part, the United States has taken a stance that pretty much allows them to loudly condemn the Assad regime, while not making any serious contributions to a negotiated solution. The Obama Administration has maintained a position that the U.S. would only engage parties who agreed that Assad must be deposed, while also declaring that Iran, Syria’s largest neighbor and the biggest ally of Assad, had to be excluded from peace talks.
Any solution to the crisis in Syria would be regional and they're not going to start with the presumption that Assad goes, which effectively guarantees that the talks we say we're willing to have never get off the ground. This position is a different sort of hedge that still maintains the status quo.
On the other side of the White House position, there are the remnants of the Bush/Cheney neo-con faction of the GOP who are calling for direct American intervention. However, the idea that the Middle East’s problems can be solved by U.S tanks and rockets has, for obvious reasons, been a tough sell.
There are connections to outside forces like Al-Qaeda, but at its root, the Syrian crisis is a classic civil war. The sides hold strong, passionate convictions and their positions seem somewhat irreconcilable. The conflict is part of a wider regional spat over complicated religious matters (Sunni vs. Shia; secular vs. religious rule), as well as the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence in the region, which is another part of what put Russia and the United States into conflict on the matter. There's also the proximity of Israel.
Recently, those lobbying for increased involvement have been invoking Rwanda as a comparison for what inaction might bring (last year Somalia was en vogue). But to my mind, when I think of a civil war with regional implications, that pits the interests of Eastern and Western superpowers against each other, the easiest comparison to make is Vietnam.
In that regard, Syria has all the makings of a potential proxy war between Moscow and Washington, with reshaping the Middle East (rather than Southeast Asia) to the victor's liking as the potential crown. Obviously, there are going to be voices on both sides who think that such a prize is worth the potential price, perhaps enough so to convince them that the cost would be much less steep and resolving the matter much less messy than would almost certainly be the case.
The current U.S. position seems to be that as much as they'd like to see the present situation end, it would be worse to engage militarily as well as diplomatically. I agree with the former, but not the latter. I think we have to look to what a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us – namely that we could have achieved an equally favorable (or perhaps even better) outcome, had we never fired a shot and instead pursued a more flexible and realistic diplomatic solution.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict already, and military intervention would quickly multiply that number. Our options seem to be to either let it play out with little more than verbal support and condemnation from us, or engage in a pragmatic solution that would involve all of the major players including Assad and Iran. If the second is politically untenable, then it's insincere to say that the first is morally so.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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