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China and Russia on Tuesday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution targeting Syria, despite efforts by the US and Europe to ensure its passage by significantly watering down the resolution's language. The veto is the strongest signal yet of the stark divide among council members over how much of a role the international community should play amid the Arab world's upheaval.
“The US is outraged that this council has utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security,” said the American ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice. "Today the courageous people of Syria can now see who on this council supports their yearning for liberty and universal human rights and who does not."
The resolution had initially included sanctions and an arms embargo, but the final version put before the Security Council merely threatened "other options" if Syria did not comply with demands to end the use of violence against civilians and release political prisoners, the Washington Post reports.
Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin and Chinese UN ambassador Li Baodong said their countries were concerned the resolution would make the situation in Syria worse and be used as a pretext for regime change, the Post reports.
A history of vetoing sanctions
China and Russia have not issued a double veto since July 2008, when they nixed sanctions against Zimbabwe. In January 2007, they vetoed a resolution against the Burmese regime, according to the Associated Press.
The council has been split on Syria since the country's uprising began in March. Russia and China – backed by nonpermanent council members Brazil, India, and South Africa – have consistently blocked assertive US and European action on Syria. The first council action on Syria didn't come until August, and even then it was merely a statement condemning the regime for violence, the AP reports.
When that passed, the US and Europe immediately began pushing for the resolution with an arms embargo and sanctions. But Russia, which has repeatedly criticized the West for overstepping the UN resolution that authorized military intervention in Libya, has balked.
“The situation in Syria cannot be considered in the council apart from the Libyan experience,” said Mr. Churkin, according to Bloomberg.
'A cheap ruse'
Rice called Russia's comparison to Libya a “cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”
A traditional ally with trade ties worth close to $20 billion, Russia has a strong financial stake in the Assad regime's survival. But Moscow's support goes beyond pocketbook issues. As a vast country that has seen its share of uprising and revolution, the one-time superpower tends to support autocracy as the lesser evil and is skeptical of Western intervention – particularly in the wake of NATO's Libya campaign.
Furthermore, Russia – with a multitude of ethnic and religious sects, as well as nationalist minorities – has an innate suspicion of popular uprisings and their uncertain outcomes, from ousting a regime to plunging a country into chaos. While the West optimistically embraces the Arab Spring as a welcome shift toward democracy in the region, Russia takes the more hard-nosed view that the outcome will be instability and bloodshed.
Churkin said Russia's veto was not meant to defend the Syrian regime and condemned the violence used to put down protests, but also pinned some of the responsibility on the Syrian opposition, saying that it had repeatedly rejected dialogue to negotiate reforms and an end to the crackdown.
The US takes a less nuanced view of the situation in Syria and holds the regime primarily responsible for the violence.
Russia's economic and military links to Assad's regime
Bloomberg reports that Russia's economic and military links to the regime may have been a factor in the veto. A Russian naval base on the Syrian coast is its only base outside the former Soviet republics and gives it a Mediterranean Sea outlet. Russia has weapons contracts with Syria worth $3 billion.
“The Russians are also aware of realpolitik and won’t back Assad if they’re convinced he’s going to fall,” said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. “At the moment they’re very confident that he’s going stay in power.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey, a former Syrian ally, would still be imposing sanctions of its own soon, according to Associated Press. Turkey has already placed an arms embargo on Syria.