It's the sovereignty, stupid
Outrageous as their vetoes of the Security Council resolution on Syria might have seemed in the West, China and Russia had good reasons to oppose UN condemnation of Assad.
With all the criticism and disgust at the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria - especially as they came on the same weekend when opposition sources said 300 civilians were killed in Homs - this is precisely the reason why the five major powers have reserved the right to stop resolutions which they feel will harm their interests.
In many respects, the United Nations is a strange animal. On the one hand, even the tiniest speck of a country has a vote in its General Assembly which is equal to that of major powers like the United States and China. On the other hand, in terms of operative decisions, the five great powers took measures to protect themselves when the organization was established in 1945, by giving themselves the right to veto. The tension between the extreme egalitarian democracy of the General Assembly and the exercise of raw power in the Security Council is an expression of the gap between the idealism that underlies the UN - and reality: Therein also lies the organization's weakness on a day of reckoning.
Both Russia and China cling in principle and consistently to the traditional position that sees the United Nations as a voluntary organization of sovereign states, which therefore does not have the right to intervene in its members' internal affairs. In fact, in recent years the United Nations and its subordinate organizations have initiated innovative moves in the realm of international law that have considerably limited the traditional concept of sovereignty. But these initiatives have always encountered objections from Russia and China. Indeed, although the two have not always succeeded in preventing such measures, they have always insisted, with respect to specific resolutions, that the UN not take steps that infringe directly on the historical concept of sovereignty.
Because Russia and China abstained from the vote on the resolution concerning Libya - that was later interpreted in a very broad manner by the West - they are now being extremely cautious about not letting themselves be dragged into a similar situation in Syria. However, opposition to the resolution on the violent oppression in Syria is also connected to the fact that both Russia and China, despite the differences between their regimes, are authoritarian states with complicated problems involving national and ethnic minorities. Russia waged - and is still waging - an all-out war on the Chechens' attempts to gain independence, and the cruelty with which it suppressed the Chechen revolt in the mid-1990s was far greater than that employed today by Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Chechen capital Grozny was razed almost entirely in the Russian attack, with the number of civilian victims reaching the tens of thousands. Vladimir Putin owes much of his support in Russian public opinion to being perceived as preventing Chechnya's succession. That could have led to a domino effect among other nations in the complex ethnic mosaic of the Caucasus.
As for China, it continues to suppress the rights of the Tibetans and the Uighurs - and these are two ethnic groups which each have a solid territorial base.
In this respect, both China and Russia are defending their territorial integrity from the possible infringement due to claims by ethnic minorities for self-determination.
Therefore, both countries - and rightly from their perspective - are wary of the slippery slope that begins with intervention in Syria's affairs and ends who knows where. It is a fact that until now the international community has not dealt with the Chechen issue, apart from a few pro forma statements, nor has it dealt with the Tibetan matter, because in both cases the issues have been perceived as domestic matters. In the same way, the West has never intervened in the cruel oppression of the Kurds by the Turkish government, in the past or in the present.
Yet beyond these general concerns, Russia has a clear interest in Syria. There is no doubt that it is not happy about being depicted as a supporter of Assad's bloody regime. Indeed, that was the reason for the hasty, extensively reported and thus far unproductive visit to Damascus this week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: It was meant to create at least the appearance that Moscow is trying to rein in Assad.
Especially since Putin came to power, Russia has been trying to reclaim some of the regional status it had in the Middle East during the Soviet era. Assad's Syria is the last foothold it has in the region, including something resembling a base for the Russian navy in Latakia. In this respect, Russian policy is a direct continuation of Soviet policy, though it lacks the ideological dimension that enabled the Soviet Union to appear as a liberating and anti-imperialist entity. What remains is only the brute great power dimension.
What happened at the Security Council last week once again symbolizes the failure of the United Nations: Anyone who believed it is an effective mechanism for ensuring human rights was disappointed this time, too, just as he was disappointed in the past and will, no doubt, be disappointed in the future. However, perhaps it is precisely the frustration with the naked assertion of power symbolized by the Russian and Chinese vetoes - after the West was prepared to meet them more than halfway when formulating the resolution - that will lead to the emergence of a coalition of the willing between the Western countries and the Arab League, which could advance harsher moves against Syria than the UN framework would have allowed. There, after all, it will always be necessary to take the Russian and Chinese positions into account.
The first inklings of such a coalition could be seen this week in French President Nicolas Sarkozy's statements and in the harsh reaction to the vetoes by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Such things have happened in the past: The United Nation's paralysis at the time of the breakup of Yugoslavia ultimately nudged the United States and NATO into taking military action against Serbia to prevent massacres in Bosnia and subsequently in Kosovo. It is not impossible that something similar will ultimately happen in the Syrian case, in which paradoxically the key to actively help the uprising will be in the hands of Turkey, which has changed its tune from a supportive embrace of Assad to leading the criticism of his regime.
This past year has been full of surprises in our region and it would be best not to be surprised by unexpected developments in the future as well - especially as it emerges that the Syrian crisis is leading to tension between the United States and Russia just when it had seemed the two powers were trying to reset their relations after the tensions of the Bush era. The fact that the United States and the Arab states are now in the same camp - for the first time in many decades - testifies to the significance of the changes taking place in the Arab states for the world as a whole, beyond their regional significance.