Russia, Syria and the Arab Spring

By Dempsey, Judy | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, April 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Russia, Syria and the Arab Spring


Dempsey, Judy, Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


What a change 24 hours make! On Saturday, a select group of former high officials from Russia, Europe and the United States launched the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative at the Munich Security Conference (MSC). The ambitious goal is to find ways to resolve frozen conflicts, reach a consensus over rejuvenating arms control and improve energy security. The experts belonging to EASI said that the building of trust among former adversaries was a fundamental condition for finally laying the legacies of the Cold War and the immediate post Cold War period to rest. There was praise all round for the initiative, and especially for Russia. Then came Sunday.

Suddenly, Russia was in the dock. It had just vetoed what was actually a mild United Nations Security Council. Moscow's No came across particularly badly as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had spent a good time of her stay at the MSC trying to persuade her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to change the Kremlin's mind on Syria. The proposed U.N. resolution, sponsored by the Arab League an institution that Russia had staunchly supported during the Cold War and until recently - did not call for military intervention.

Nor did it call for President Bashir al-Assad to resign. Instead, the Arab League plan called for Mr. Assad to cede power to his vice president and a unity government to lead Syria to democratic election. Arab and Western ambassadors, in a bid to placate Russia, even dropped references in the resolution to Mr. Assad's ceding power, or calls of a voluntary arms embargo and sanctions. Despite the diluted version, the deaths of at least 6,000 citizens over the past several months and in this past weekend alone, hundreds killed by Syrian security forces, Russia, along with China vetoed the resolution.

No wonder the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, called the vote "a great disappointment." "It undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people," he said in a statement. Leaders and officials from the Arab world were outraged by the Russian veto.

Tawakkul Karman, the Nobel Prize Laureate 2011 and chairwoman of Women Without Chains, Sana, Yemen, told MSC participants: "The Security Council is supposed to protect human rights and protest against violence. Instead, Russia is supporting a dictatorship." Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, suggested that new norms of behavior on the U.N. Security Council were needed to prevent vetoes on issues concerning crimes against humanity or the kind of violence taking place in Syria.

The implications are clear: Russia has lost immense credibility among countries in North Africa and the Middle East that are desperately trying to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy. …

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