Russia must rethink what Syria protests mean

Russia under Vladimir Putin sees only a civil war in Syria, justifying its threat to veto any US Security Council action against Assad. But Syria is in a revolution, a shifting of sovereignty.

REUTERS/Stringer
Demonstrators chant slogans and wave pre-Baath Party Syrian flags during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Qudsaya, near Damascus, on Feb. 1.

Where does sovereignty lie?

Whether they know it or not, diplomats at the UN Security Council who are struggling for a response to the crisis in Syria are really debating that key question.

Over the past 10 months, thousands of pro-democracy protesters in Syria have been killed by the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. Each day, more are shot down simply for peacefully demanding a right to choose their leaders. Whatever legitimacy the Assad regime might have had is now gone.

The Arab League, which in the past backed Mr. Assad, asked the Security Council last week to demand he step aside. A pro-democracy opposition group stands ready to serve as a transitional authority to elected government.

What still stands in the way of the United Nations pursuing that path?

Russia and its veto power.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sees the violence in Syria strictly as a civil war. Syria’s sovereignty is defined solely by the regime that holds power, Russian diplomats contend. The UN cannot violate the sovereignty of even dictatorial countries, they say. The UN itself is built on the sovereignty of each member state.

But this view does not match Syria’s reality. The country is really in a revolution to redefine the very nature of Syria’s government and sovereignty.

A “civil war” presumes two or more groups fighting simply for power. For the vast majority of Syrians, however, the struggle is not simply against another group – a small, well-armed elite – but it is an assertion of the principle of what constitutes sovereignty.

By their sheer numbers and bravery, Syrian protesters are taking back whatever legitimacy they once granted to Assad. The regime’s killing of innocent people only underscores how much it has lost the very basis of sovereignty – the capacity to keep order in daily life.

Sovereignty lies in the individual, especially one’s conscience. Collective sovereignty, such as that seen in a country defined by borders and a government, can only consist of individuals yielding sovereignty to their rulers.

“Are you on the side of the Syrian people?” asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in response to Russia’s veto threat of a resolution seeking the end of Assad’s rule.

Russia’s motives in the UN debate may come from its practical interests in Syria – a naval base, lucrative sales of Russian weapons and other goods, and Syria’s strategic influence in the Middle East. Mr. Putin doesn’t want the United States to have more sway in the region.

But Russia’s main argument at the UN is conceptual – that the UN can’t intervene in a civil war if it breaks national sovereignty. The paradox of this view is that sovereignty can shift when a country’s people seek to recapture their values abused by their leaders – justice, fair representation, and opportunity – with a new type of government: democracy. That’s called revolution, and it starts first in each person’s thinking.

The Security Council could find a consensus on Syria if it realizes that the UN’s own authority relies in recognizing where sovereignty lies. It lies not in the guns of the few but in the conscience of the many.

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