Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unintended consequences in Libya: inertia in Syria

Last year I warned against NATO's intervention in Libya, with a list of horrible possible consequences of it. (I hedged my bets a bit with this admission of a blind spot that probably afflicts me over wars.)

Anyway, one consequence I hadn't foreseen is related to the way NATO interpreted the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which called for a ceasefire and the protection of civilians, and under which NATO aided Libyan rebels to overthrow Gaddafi. Russia and China had abstained from the vote when they could have vetoed it, and later protested that it was used by NATO as a pretext for regime change.

Now there is terrible violence in Syria, but this time China and Russia have vetoed a new UN resolution. NATO member states have been shaking fingers at them since:
Mr [British Foreign Secretary William] Hague criticised Russia and China for their "grave error of judgement" over the resolution.

"Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people," he said.
But one should feel no surprise that the Russian and Chinese governments aren't willing to be tricked a second time into green-lighting another NATO-influenced regime change in the Middle East. It is possible that the sneaky use of the Libyan resolution to overthrow Gaddafi has lessened the likelihood of NATO winning support from Russia or China in the future.

The Syrian situation is still often depicted as a simplistic good (the people) versus evil (the dictator) scenario. However the Syrian government is made up of a Muslim religious minority, the Alawite sect, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. The Alawite ruling Assad family have been friendly with Shia Iran, and support (Shia) Hezbollah. If NATO manage to nudge Assad from power they might manage to score an important strategic victory: deprive Hezbollah of one of their major supporters, alienate Iran from its neighbours, and bring Syria into the influence of American ally (Sunni) Saudi Arabia. I don't know how sincere NATO member state politicians are when they call for an end to violence in Syria, but I can understand why Russia and China might see this as crocodile tears by Western powers talking humanitarianism while quietly projecting power.

So the regime-changing intervention in Libya may have prevented a ceasefire intervention in Syria.


  1. I wouldn't be so sure of the intentions of the Russians or Chinese either. It's not surprising that these two totalitarian governments are supporting another while simultaneously pissing of the democratic world. Russia and China also seem to have little problem with violence when they feel the need arises.

    In the latest non-binding UN resolution on Syria, there were 137 votes in favour, 12 against and 17 abstentions, those voting against included Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Are these countries the peaceful enlightened ones? I don't think so.

  2. Oh no doubt David, goes without saying I think! They are hungrily eyeing up the Middle Eastern pawns too.

    I've read that China especially has often sided with non-democratic governments to boost its own sense of legitimacy. If China were the only authoritarian state surrounded by democracies it would be harder to sell its narrative. So we can see why they'd be worried by democratic movements abroad, and especially by NATO interventions that push harder for the overthrow of non-democratic governments: this is a threat to the CCP's own legitimacy.

    You might have read this one already, but if not, it's worth a look: Myanmar seems to be shifting away from Chinese-backed autocracy too, perhaps towards democracy.


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