Syria resolution: The diplomatic train-wreck
- 5 February 2012
- From the section Middle East
International efforts to bring pressure to bear on President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria have collapsed in acrimony.
The decision by Russia and China to veto an Arab League-inspired resolution at the United Nations Security Council has created serious strains especially between Moscow and the West.
Worse, it has probably sent the wrong signal to President Assad, who many analysts believe is determined to step up the violence.
The annual Munich Security Conference in Germany has provided a ring-side seat as this diplomatic drama played out. The touring company of world leaders, diplomats and experts who do the rounds of these policy gatherings have made Munich the premier event of its kind.
It always has a good cast-list and this year was no exception. Both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov were in town, fresh from their starring roles in the negotiations at the UN in New York.
'Not a serious policy'
Almost from the outset of this crisis, all eyes have been on Moscow.
Russia is Syria's only prominent ally. Moscow has long had close military, economic and diplomatic ties with the Syrians. Russia is expanding its use of the Syrian naval base at Tartus and has maintained arms supplies to Damascus throughout this crisis.
So all eyes were on Sergei Lavrov when he began his brief intervention.
Was Russia now ready to join in concerted international action to condemn the Syrian regime? The answer quickly became clear - No, it was not.
For all the hopes in the West of a last-minute compromise, with Mr Lavrov and Mrs Clinton hurrying off for bilateral talks in the margins of the conference, there was probably no deal to be done.
At one level it is quite simple. Russia is, as I have said, Syria's most prominent ally and that is that.
This, together with Russia's traditional antipathy towards what it sees as the UN Security Council's interference in a sovereign nation's affairs - here China takes much the same view - was enough to prompt the Russian veto.
But it is a little more complicated than that.
I listened closely to Mr Lavrov's comments. "Russia," he said, "supported the call of the Syrian people for change." It had backed the Arab League observer mission and had persuaded the Syrian authorities to accept it.
But, he went on, Russia was not going to accept any resolutions that might open the way to foreign intervention or that would pre-determine the political outcome in Syria.
Mr Lavrov was clearly sceptical about what any UN resolution might achieve.
"What was the West's game plan?" he asked. If the violence continued, he argued, would you simply go back to the UN for another resolution? This was simply "not a serious policy".
If the draft resolution did not apply equivalent restrictions on all parties - for the Russians that means the "armed groups" who they believe are fomenting the violence as much as the Syrian government - it was going to be unacceptable to Moscow.
Similarly, if it referred in any way to the Arab League peace plan which involves President Assad stepping aside according to a tight schedule, then this too was unacceptable to the Russians, as was anything that they believe might pre-determine the outcome in Syria.
Impact on relations
Contrast all this with the Western view and the context of Saturday's talks - reports of hundreds killed by Syrian government artillery in Homs. The fact that the death toll was significantly scaled down by the evening does little to alter the horror of the events there.
Western leaders believed the Syrian government's escalation of the violence required a prompt and unanimous condemnation from the international community.
But the broader context matters too.
In general terms, the West is far more enthusiastic than the Russians about the upheavals in the Middle East. Moscow has welcomed the advent of the Arab Spring in cautious terms, concerned by instability and the potential overthrow of established diplomatic patterns.
In the West there has been an altogether more jubilant tone. Syria is seen as the next outdated regime to fall and its departure would be a blow to Iran. After hoping that President Assad might deliver reform, he has turned his guns on his own people and the consensus in the West, along with the Arab League, is that he must go.
So where does diplomacy go from here? The sense of anger in Western diplomatic circles is palpable, and that is bound to have an impact on broader relations with Moscow.
"The Russians and Chinese have put themselves on the wrong side of history, and they will regret it," said veteran US Senator John McCain who is leading a Congressional delegation to the Munich conference.
"Didn't Mr Lavrov though have a point?" I asked him. "A UN resolution is not going to change President Assad's approach?"
"No" he said, such resolutions mattered.
"Secretary Clinton had gone the extra mile with Mr Lavrov here in Munich. She was willing to make changes to the resolution. It wasn't set in concrete," he said.
"But Mr Lavrov wanted to gut the resolution, it's as simple as that."
Western diplomats insist that the quest for a UN resolution condemning Syria will continue. Mr Lavrov is heading to Damascus for some bilateral diplomacy of his own.
What message will he carry with him to the Syrian capital? Russia of course does not want to lose an ally, but it is undoubtedly in an uncomfortable position. It wants any new Syria that may emerge to maintain its alliance with Moscow.
But there was perhaps just a hint of Moscow's thinking in Mr Lavrov's comments here in Munich.
"Russia fully supports the rights of the Syrian people for a better life. We are not friends or allies of President Assad," he said.
He said it again a few moments later: "We don't have any special concern for President Assad."
That is one straw in the wind, though. With the Assad regime struggling for its survival, Moscow may find that its efforts to manage regime change in Syria is just as fruitless as the diplomatic pressures coming from the West and the Arab League.