After massacre in Syria, Russia and China veto UN resolution

The past 24 hours have been one of the bloodiest of Syria's war, with government forces indiscriminately shelling the restive town of Homs over night. Russia and China were unmoved.

Allison Joyce/Reuters
The UN Security Council votes on a resolution calling for the Syrian president to resign. Thirteen of the Security Council's fifteen members voted in favor, but Russia and China vetoed the measure.

That a Russia and China veto of a UN Security Council resolution calling for Syrian President Basar al-Assad to resign was coming was expected all week.

But in the last 24 hours Assad's regime unleashed a series of assaults across the country that opposition groups insisted amounted to indiscriminate targeting of unarmed civilians. They claim more than 200 killed since yesterday afternoon, though reporters with contacts on the ground have begun to speculate the death toll is exaggerated. 

Worst hit was Homs, were activists said parts of the city were turned into free fire zones by government troops seeking the latest set of army defectors who fled into the city. Frightening footage made its way out of Homs to back their assertions, including a group of bound and mostly naked armed men, found murdered in a home in the city.

The carnage in Syria promised to make this morning's UNSC showdown more explosive, and some Syrian activists hoped it would move Russia and China toward at least an abstention. The two powers voted in favor of the first UNSC resolution on Libya last year, and abstained from voting on the second, which authorized the use of international force.

But the activists were disappointed. When the vote on the resolution came, 13 hands went up in support, including South Africa, Brazil and India, which had opposed UN action in Libya. China and Russia went the other way.

Those votes from South Africa, Brazil and India were just one of the indications of Syria's growing international isolation. Tunisia announced today it was expelling the Syrian ambassador, and Algeria looked to be moving in that direction as well.

But with two veto wielding members of the UNSC digging in, it's hard to measure what diplomatic isolation means. That the two states held firm was far from surprising. Russia in particular has been vocal in proclaiming that it felt tricked by UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya, which led to a sustained NATO bombing campaign in support of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi. Russia says it expected armed action would only be taken to protect the civilian population, and that the armed and coordinated support from NATO for the rebels, who won their war, went far beyond the UN mandate.

Determined to not allow that to happen again and concerned about the precedent that such actions set, Russia insisted that it would only support a resolution that explicitly ruled out regime change or eventual armed intervention (which was not in the cards in the current resolution). Russia also sought language in the resolution that would appear to put Assad's opponents, who appear to be developing a growing number of armed militias, on equal footing with the regime. Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russia had asked for language demanding the "Syrian opposition must distance themselves from resistance groups using acts of violence," but was turned down, in explaining his country's veto.

The vetoes extracted an angry, almost scornful response from the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. "The United States is disgusted that a couple of members of this council have stopped us from fulfilling (our) purpose here," she said. She complained that Russia continues to deliver weapons to Assad (one of the country's most reliable international arms customers), charged that since Friday "the Syrian govt has waged an intensified, and especially horrific assault on Homs," and as much as said that Russia and China support "tyranny."

"A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant," she said. "Further bloodshed... will be on their hands."

Pakistani Ambassador Abdullah Haroon, the most gifted orator in the room with a stentorian delivery reminiscent of Churchill, said the veto reminded him of "Pontius Pilate washing his hands and saying 'I have nothing to do with this,'" when Jesus was sentenced to death.

Syria's Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, meanwhile accused those of voting for the resolution of "selling their souls to the devil."

All of that made for a dramatic hour or so at the UN. But with no likelihood of new and decisive action on Syria's blossoming war. The Arab League still has a plan on the table calling for Assad to step down and a government of "national unity" to be formed. The US and Europe are wielding the stick of financial sanctions. But neither Assad nor his political base in the country's minority Alawite sect, which has enjoyed privilege and protection since Assad's father and predecessor Hafez took power in 1971, have shown any signs of budging.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters in Germany before the vote was taken, said "the endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, I fear, is civil war." She said the international community should urge Assad's opponents to pursue their demands "peacefully" and stressed that military intervention has been ruled out.

But with the daily assaults on both unarmed political activists and members of the self-styled Free Syrian Army, composed of defectors from Assad's military, the opposition seeking a path of peace seems unlikely. Torture and disappearances of activists continue. And the Assad family has faced down uprisings with brutal effectiveness before. A few days ago was the 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre, when that Syrian city was sacked and tens of thousands of its citizens murdered for supporting an uprising.

The elder Assad survived both that challenge and its repercussions. His son appears determined to do likewise.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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