Author: Dean Dechiaro
As violence against anti-government protesters in Syria reached new levels this week, the world’s top diplomats gathered in New York to decide whether or not the United Nations would intervene. The situation mirrors another deliberation in late 2011, when the Security Council voted to enforce the Libyan no-fly zone, a decision which returned almost immediate dividends with the ousting of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Delegates of the Arab League states, along with those from the United States and other Western nations, are gunning for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the way they were Gaddafi, and rightly so. But the difference is that while Gaddafi was universally hated across most the globe, al-Assad is not, and unlike Gaddafi, he has friends in high places. Russia, a Security Council member, voiced impassioned support for al-Assad, and on Friday stopped an otherwise unanimous vote to intervene in the situation, clearly serving their own interests above those of the Syrian people.
According to the Russian delegation, as well as those of its allies China and India, U.N. intervention in Syria would set a new precedent for the international community’s right to intervene in a state’s national politics. This precedent would endanger the sovereignty of any nation by situating it in a position subordinate to the U.N., oft-maligned recently for blurring the line between peacekeeping and regime change. Russia claims that its vote for intervention in Libya was not a vote for ousting Gaddafi – hence its refusal to interfere in Syria, adding that “regime change is not [their] business.” To vote again for interference could potentially change the U.N.’s writ of duty permanently, or at least the Russians think so.
It is an important discussion, one that deserves well-articulated argument amongst the world’s leading political philosophers. But a legitimate concern of Russia’s? Doubtful. There are other reasons why Russia would rather not endorse a potential regime change in Syria. For starters, Russia sells a lot of guns to the al-Assad government. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2000 to 2010, Russian manufacturers have sold approximately $460 million in arms to the Syrian government, with $324 million of that figure sold in 2009 and 2010 alone. The contracts are worth around $4 billion in total. Yet more, the Syrian port of Tartus is home to a handful of Russian navy vessels, some of which are armed with nuclear weapons. Russia’s use of the port is a relic of the Cold War, but it still allows them enough influence in the Mediterranean that they are uninterested in moving their ships elsewhere.
It seems clear that Russia’s concerns lie not with philosophical questions of sovereignty, but with questions of strength in trade and strategy. However, it is important to also take into account the motivations of those western countries on the Security Council that advocate for intervention. They are not without their own interests, namely the prospect of dealing a blow to Iran’s small network of Middle Eastern allies, among whom al-Assad counts himself. The chances of a new, more progressive Syrian government cooperating with Iran are small, a fact the U.S. government is well aware of. Thus, it is only chance that in this situation, interests and strategy coincide with human morality. The governments of the West are on the side of the embattled Syrian people, but it may have as much to do with human rights abuses as Russia’s position has to do with the larger questions of international politics.
The Syrian people have fallen victim to an unfortunate truth about international politics: states do not consider the well-being of the citizens of other states unless it is in their best interest to do so. This is precisely the reason why organizations like the United Nations exist, to navigate these difficult situations, but in this case the system has failed. It has failed many times before, often with the most tragic of consequences. So while Russia’s claims raise important questions about international jurisdiction, they are questions that must be raised at another point in time. In this instance, Russia must understand the primary importance of preserving innocent life, and as a member of the U.N. Security Council, understand that its oppositions are petty and selfish.
Dean DeChiaro is a senior History major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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