Early 2011 saw an onslaught of citizen led uprisings throughout the Middle East, and Syria was no exception. But, why the lack of international intervention in this conflict when there was such significant international military intervention in Libya?
In Syria, demonstrations began to take place sporadically on January 26, but mass protests did not erupt until March 15th. As in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, protesters were calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the overthrow of his government. In response to the protests, the Syrian government has employed the use of military forces in order to quell the uprising. According to the United Nations, there have been an estimated 7200 deaths as a result of the conflict. Despite the government’s use of violent measures, however, it has also granted several concessions to the protesters: the emergency law, which was in place for forty-eight years, was lifted on April 21; the Supreme State Security Court was abolished; and some 5,994 political prisoners were released. The protestors, however, have dismissed such reforms as insignificant and continue to demand extensive change.
By the end of 2011, international opposition to the violence of the al-Assad government had increased and intensified. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in November of 2011, and later the U.N. Security Council published a resolution that backed an Arab peace plan aimed at stopping the violence. Russia and China vetoed this resolution, though, causing a furious reaction from the international community.
To some, this decision by the Security Council may appear counter intuitive, based on their previous reaction to the uprising in Libya. However, in contrast to Libya, Russia and China both have significant diplomatic and economic interest in Syria.
China has sustained substantial trade relations with Syria. China is Syria’s main importer, with exports from China to Syria worth $2.2 billion. Russia has been associated with the al-Assad family for decades and economic exports to Syria are worth an estimated $1.1 billion. From 2000 to 2010, Russia sold $1.5 billion worth of arms in Syria. Damascus is currently the seventh largest recipient of Russian arms in the world. In 2011, a new arms contract between Syria and Russia was worth an estimated $4 billion.
In return for arms, Syria serves as an important military base for Russia. In a 1971 agreement, Russia established its only Mediterranean navel base for its Black Sea Fleet in the Syrian Port of Tartus. When protests erupted in Moscow in December of 2011, Putin was accused of rigging parliamentary elections in his favor. Many have speculated that in addition to trying to preserve his economic and military interests in Syria, Russia’s Security Council veto was a self-serving attempt by Putin to preserve his own political career. If the al-Assad family were to be overthrown in Syria, Putin would be more vulnerable to the opinion of his own populace. If he were to assent to military intervention in an undemocratic state –much like his own — what would stop his own people from deposing him?
In addition to the substantial economic ties between these countries, and the possible domestic politics present in the decision, Syria’s relationship with Iran also contributed to the Security Council veto. Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic Syria and Iran have maintained close ties, and Syria now serves as Iran’s key Arab ally in the region. Therefore, the economic relationships Iran maintains with both China and Russia could be a contributing factor in the Security Council veto regarding Syria. China and Russia may have vetoed any potential military intervention in Syria in order to protect their other ally in the region, Iran.
This is in direct contrast with Libya, where Gaddafi had no regional supporters. While expressing their disapproval for intervention in Libya, China and Russia both abstained from voting. As permanent members of the Security Council, one veto from either state would have been enough to shelve the resolution. Though abstention from voting is not uncommon to Russia and China, both states lacked any motivation to prop up Gaddafi’s regime. Rather, Russia had significant economic interests in seeing Gaddafi ousted. Libya, a member of OPEC, was producing 1.6 billion barrels a day under Gaddafi. Eighty-five percent of their output was imported into Europe, mostly to Italy, Germany, and France. Because oil prices are determined in large part on speculation, political instability and violence in Libya would have forced these countries to import oil from Russia (Russia having the only other pipeline into Europe). China, on the other hand, did not so much have an incentive to see Gaddafi ousted as it lacked one to see him stay in power. Regionally speaking, the Arab League suspended Libya’s membership in February 2011 and endorsed the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone. Because Gaddafi had cultivated so few regional and international allies, it makes sense that these two superpowers would not want to risk a political scandal to keep him in power.
Geographically speaking, the NATO mission in Libya consisted of air and sea strikes, which would be virtually impossible to repeat in Syria. Libya, situated on the Mediterranean Sea, was in a prime location to impose an arms embargo by sea. Similarly, its geographical position made it easier for NATO to conduct air strikes without having to deploy troops on the ground. Maintaining a presence on the ground has completely different political implications than carrying out air strikes: in Libya, the rebels would not actually be seeing NATO troops on the ground attacking their fellow countrymen.
The Libyan case did not have nearly the political fall-out as a NATO mission in Syria would have had. While Syria’s lack of oil is definitely important in explaining this phenomenon, it is not alone sufficient. In explaining the Syrian case, one must look at Syria’s strategic place in regional and international trade relations as well as their historic ties to two superpowers sitting on the UN Security Council – Russia and China. Also, with lingering political instability and violence in Libya, those who intervened before were bound to think twice before doing so again.
– Joey Shea and Alana Jesse