Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog with zero UN observers.
In this week’s post, we’ll discuss the horrid massacres of the past two weeks in Syria by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government forces, the vehement condemnation from the West and most Arab countries, and why Russia and China continue to be tentative in their response and hesitant to make moves against Assad.
On May 25th, Syrian government forces stormed through the town of Houla, a town Northwest of Homs in Midwestern Syria, and proceeded to systematically kill more than 100 people, mostly women and children. On June 6th, evidence arose of a similar attack that killed 78 people in a village near Hama. When journalists and UN observers finally were able to get to these towns, government workers had apparently ordered citizens to remove all the bodies and “clean up” the evidence. The blood-stained walls, shelled buildings, and the stories from survivors, however, remained and were broadcast to a shocked global audience. Meanwhile, Assad’s forces have continued the shelling of Homs while attacks on government forces by the Free Syrian Army and rebel groups have stepped up in tow.
All this is occurring under the observance of UN “peacekeepers” who are in the country as part of the deal brokered between the UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan and the Syrian President. This deal was supposed to be a 5 point peace plan implemented to stop the violence from both sides, but it is clear that Annan’s plan has disintegrated. Like the ineffectiveness of the Arab League observers from earlier this year, this new round has not deterred Assad nor opposition forces from relenting on violent action (UN observers have reportedly been shot at by Syrian government troops). Just as important to the fate of the revolution, protesters continue to take to the streets in demanding an end to the Assad regime, even in Damascus, the capital. This effort has shown just how resilient this movement is, 16 months in to the uprising.
While the U.S., much of Europe, and most of the Arab League have been sanctioning and condemning the Assad regime for months now, these most recent atrocities have provoked even stronger words from the U.S. State Department, new French President Francois Hollande, and especially the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S., UK, and Turkey have also expelled their respective ambassadors to Syria. While Russia and China were both quick to jump on the condemnation bandwagon of the Houla killings, their opposition to UN sanctions or any coalition intervention in Syria remains very resolute.
So, given their importance to the UN Security Council in making decisions, Russia and China’s thumbs up is vital for anything to be done on Syria. The question is, why are they hesitant? Why are these two giants not as cooperative on condemning a dictator who has presided over the killing of over 10,000 of his own people? This issue has been discussed in much detail, but a historical look at the Russian (and Chinese) relationship with Syria and the West is necessary in defogging the issue to a clearer understanding as events unfold.
A Rocky Relationship Over a Foothold
Russia and Syria have had serious strategic ties since the 1950s when the then Soviet Union sought global allies during the height of the Cold War. Of particular importance for the Soviet Union were allies in the Middle East, a geographically strategic and resource rich region. In 1955, the Soviet Union invited Syria (and Egypt) to join a pro-Soviet pact. The Syrians, before they split off from Egypt were looking to gain a powerful ally and supplier of arms, so between 1955 – 1960, Premier Khrushchev gave Syria nearly $200 million in military aid to solidify the new alliance.
The military aid to Syria continued in 1967 with $2.5 billion in arms aid pledged through 1968. This particular donation was in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, the pre-emptive strike by Israel against the combined forces of Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq that saw Israel gain substantial territory against its Arab adversaries.
In 1971, Hafez Al-Assad (Bashar’s father) became the Syrian leader by way of a coup and continued the relationship with the Soviets, signing a peace and security pact in 1972 that saw $135 million in military aid delivered to Syria. As part of the relationship building with the elder Assad, the Soviets made a long term agreement with Syria in 1971 to utilize a strategic port on the Mediterranean Sea, the naval port of Tartus. This agreement was part of the Soviet Union’s strategy of maintaining a naval presence in the Middle East, as they also had naval bases in Alexandria and Mersa Matruh, Egypt up until 1977.
The October 1973 War, or Yom Kippur War, launched by Syria and Egypt to regain lost territory from Israel eventually led to Israel gaining an edge; a conflict that saw both the U.S. and Soviets on high alert. In return for not asking the U.S. for assistance, Syria accepted aid of high tech aircraft and long-range missiles from Moscow. So essentially, Syria’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflicts during this time were fought with Soviet weapons, an alliance that was formed to counter U.S. interests during the Cold War.
Though the Soviets made Syria one of their top recipients for arms sales and have used Syrian territory for their own gain, this does not mean that Syria was a Soviet proxy, or that Moscow and Damascus were ever close allies. The two are very different ideologically and have supported contrasting visions of the Middle East. The one driving political force that did keep them working together was an antagonistic relationship with the U.S. and Israel, but even this line was not toed by both parties.
Rifts developed between Damascus and Moscow over Hafez al-Assad’s decision to intervene in Lebanon during the civil war in 1976. In turn, Syria was displeased with the Soviet’s decision to support Iraq (with many Western nations) in the Iraq-Iran War 1980-1988 while Syria supported Iran. This mutual displeasure and distrust continued through the Gorbachev era as he sought improved relations with the U.S. and recognized the existence of Israel, a policy that worked to improve country relations with Israel, but infuriated Syria. Deteriorating relations continued leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union as military shipments for Syria were decreased from $2.5 billion/year between 1980 – 84 to the point where the Soviets eventually requested that Syria pay for arms in the early 1990s as the USSR collapsed.
Since the Putin era began in Russia in 1999, Damascus and Moscow have re-solidified their mutual interests by seeking better relations. Moscow has forgiven substantial Syrian debt owed to Russia while continuing high tech military trade with the younger Assad and reinforcing the naval base at Tartus. Again, the major problems between the two still exist, mainly over Russia’s relationship with the U.S. and especially Israel.
Here are a few main points to keep in mind when examining the Russian response over the Syrian uprising and Bashar al-Assad:
- Russia has and continues to have strategic interests in its relations with Syria including their use of the naval base at Tartus.
- Syria and Russia have not seen eye to eye on much over the years especially over Israel, and other Middle Eastern conflicts.
- Syria has been a key recipient of military shipments from Moscow for decades.
China’s Take: oil and more
China like Russia, has had strategic interests in Syria, but they have so far been mostly economic, not political. Most significantly is the Chinese activity in Syrian oil. The China National Petroleum Company is a partner venture company with the Syrian National Oil Co and Royal Dutch Shell. Sinochem, another Chinese oil company, has played a large role in oil exploration in Syria.
Trade has important between China and Syria, with nearly $2.2 billion net worth of mutual trade between the two countries in 2o09. China is the main actor here, importing 99% of goods for Syria. So, Syria is an important economic partner for China. Given China’s relatively recent rise to power in the modern world, they have less political connections to the Middle East, but this is changing because of their economic investments.
It turns out though that Iran plays into this issue for China. China is one of Iran’s main customers for oil, receiving around 20% of Iranian oil exports (China has reduced its oil imports since Iran’s threat to close the Straight of Hormuz last fall). Bejing is concerned over the possibility of a war in the Middle East if a foreign entity intervened to oust Syria’s President.
Conclusion: Utilizing Diplomatic Power
Given the economic and geographic interests that China and Russia have built over the years with Syria, it starts to make a little bit of sense that Beijing and Moscow are not shouting for Assad to step down or to take action to remove him. Both countries have condemned the killings in Houla and are certainly not fans of the bloody manner in which the uprising has progressed, but remain hesitant to options more drastic than Mr. Annan’s plan or a “Yemeni solution” (an unlikely passage of power similar to what occurred in Yemen earlier this spring).
Russia, if Assad falls and instability reigns in Syria, is concerned about losing:
- The use of the naval port at Tartus; a foothold in the Middle East.
- A major recipient of weapons sales
- General instability in the Middle East
While China, for its part, could lose:
- An important economic partner
- Middle East stability that could threaten oil exports from Iran
So, both China and Russia are not supporters of Assad, but supporters of stability and sharply opposed to revolution.
Both China and Russia find themselves in positions of diplomatic power and sway in the UN Security Council; positions which they have been keen to leverage given the economically unstable and war-weary West. Further, both China and Russia did not want an intervention last year in Libya to oust Colonel Muammar Qaddafi; they both abstained from voting in the UN Security Council Resolution that allowed NATO’s air support. China, and especially Russia, do not want to yield again to what they see as a Western-dominated decision making body. On Syria, both countries have stood in the way of more direct or harsher action by not voting for a UN resolution. This has so far resulted in minimal action and most recently, the failed Annan peace plan.
As the violence ramps back up from both sides in Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has made very draconian remarks in the direction of Moscow because of their foot dragging and continuing sales of weapons to Syria. The U.S. and many others on the security council see Syria as a battleground for human rights and democracy, but Russia tends to see a brewing sectarian war that without stability will threaten their own interests.
Russia also tends to see Mrs. Clinton’s response as hypocritical. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov brought up how America continues to give to countries around the world yet condemns Russia’s sale of weapons (still a-okay by international law). Not mentioned by Lavrov, but an important historical reminder is the direct and indirect support that the U.S. has given to dictators and heavy handed regimes over the last 120 years which often meant combating pro-democracy candidates and revolutionary uprisings. So Moscow has a point here. Russia also sees the American effort to oust Assad as really a chance to take out an ally of Iran, but this seems more of a counter punch to America’s declaration of Russia supporting an authoritarian figure to keep an ally (and a presence) in the Middle East.
Both of the bickering sides should take a look at the stakes: the U.S. could lose important votes on dealing with Iran’s nuclear program if they undertake a Syrian adventure without Russia and China’s vote. But the line that Russia and China are taking is a very unpopular one and one that will have to be more malleable as Syria looks increasingly closer to a civil war even without outside intervention.
This issue will be fascinating to follow and sometimes hard to look at, but will be the ultimate conflict in defining how our current geopolitical bodies handle international crises.
Following the issues and explaining their relevance,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
Russia & Syria: Autocrats Together, The Economist print edition http://www.economist.com/node/21556610
Houla & its Consequences, The Economist print edition