Assad must survive, not because he buys Russian arms and gives Russia a naval base in the Mediterranean, but because his overthrow would be a precedent that, they imagine, might one day be used against them.
The decision last weekend by the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Syria to suspend its peace mission is fully justified: Its 300 unarmed observers were being prevented from visiting massacre sites by the Syrian army, and yet their mere presence created the false impression that the international community was «doing something.» So now the international community will be under even greater pressure to «do something» else about the Syrian tragedy. That means military action against the Assad regime – but the Russians will veto that.
Russian diplomacy is not usually so clumsy. None of the Western great powers will actually send troops to intervene in Syria: the Syrian army is too strong, and the sectarian and ethnic divisions in the country are far too messy.
So why don’t the Russians just promise to abstain in any U.N. Security Council vote on military intervention? No such vote will happen anyway, and Moscow would expose the hypocrisy of the Western powers that are pretending to demand action and blaming the Russians (and the Chinese) for being the obstacle.
It’s stupid to bring such opprobrium on your own country when you don’t have to, but both President Vladimir Putin’s elective dictatorship in Russia and the Communist Party in China fear that one day they might face foreign intervention themselves. There must, therefore, be no legal precedent for international action against a regime that is merely murdering its own people on its own sovereign soil.
In reality, there is one kind of justice for the great powers and another for weaker states, and neither Moscow nor Beijing would ever face Western military intervention even if they were crushing nonviolent protests by their own people, let alone drowning an armed revolt in blood.
You only have to imagine the headlines that such an intervention would create to understand that the whole proposition is ridiculous. «Security Council votes to intervene in China to protect protesters from regime violence!» «American troops enter Russian cities to back anti-regime revolt!» Such headlines are only slightly less implausible than «Martians invade Vatican City, kidnap Pope!»
But we are dealing here with the nightmare fantasies of regimes that secretly know they are illegitimate. They never acknowledge it in public, and they don’t discuss it directly even in private. But they know it nevertheless, and they understand that illegitimacy means vulnerability.
It doesn’t matter that Russia or China can simply veto any U.N. resolution that is directed against them. It makes no difference that no sane government in the rest of the world would commit the folly of sending troops to intervene against either of these giants. Paranoid fears cannot be dissolved by the application of mere reason.
Both Vladimir Putin and the Chinese leadership are appalled by the growing influence of the «responsibility to protect» principle at the United Nations, which breaches the previously sacred doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of member states. «R2P» says that foreign intervention can be justifiable (with a Security Council resolution, of course) to stop huge human-rights abuses committed by member governments.
The Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council give them complete protection from foreign military intervention, but they still worry about it. And they look with horror at the phenomenon of nonviolent revolutions that has been removing authoritarian regimes with such efficiency, from the ones that overthrew communist regimes in Eastern Europe and almost overthrew the Chinese regime in 1989 down to the Arab Spring uprisings of today.
Moscow and Beijing have convinced themselves that there is a Western «hidden hand» behind these uprisings, even though Western actions (like the U.S. backing for Egypt’s President Mubarak that continued until almost the last minute of the revolution) and Western interests both argue otherwise.
Now, in Syria, they see both of these threats coalescing. First, for eight months, they watch strictly nonviolent protests – despite some thousands of killings by the Syrian state – undermine the Assad regime.
Then, when some of the protesters start fighting back, and the regime responds with even greater violence, bombarding city centers and committing open massacres of villagers, they hear the Western powers begin to talk about their «responsibility to protect,» with the (deliberately misleading) implication that they are contemplating direct military intervention in Syria to stop it.
So Russia and China will veto any Security Council resolution that condemns the Assad regime, and certainly any resolution that hints at military intervention. Assad must survive, not because he buys a few billion dollars worth of Russian arms and gives Russia a naval base in the Mediterranean, but because his overthrow would be a precedent that, they imagine, might one day be used against them.
Utter nonsense, but it means that the Russians, in particular, will go on taking the blame for the U.N.’s immobility and lending cover to the West’s pretense that it would act against Assad if only the Russians would get out of the way. They will protect Assad right down to the bitter end – and it may be very bitter, indeed.