By Patricia Lee Sharpe
From any normal human point of view, the disinclination of Russia and China to enthusiastically join efforts to restrain Bashar Assad from his slaughter fest is incomprehensible. So far as I can tell, not even the most horrified foreign leaders are eager to put boots on the ground or even to provide the degree of assistance that Libyan rebels received, but China and Russia are not ready for serious jaw-boning, either. Nor have they joined the chorus suggesting that Assad and his family might seek a cozy retirement site. If recently leaked emails are authentic, the Assads would settle for nothing less than world class luxury aka life among the global 1%. Bribing the unjust with chateaux leaves a very bad taste in the mouth, but it’s a time honored way to dislodge tyrants with minimal loss of life.
Meanwhile, what a bonus for the enablers! While supporting a brutal dictatorship, China and Russia masquerade as global good citizens upholding long understood principles of international law.
Yes, a state is allowed to protect itself from most civil unrest and to defend itself from external threat. But only up to a point, in each case.
The Assad regime claims to be restoring peace and stability by neutralizing “armed gangs” beholden to outside forces. When restoring order requires the scale of destruction we’ve seen in Homs, including day-after-day blanket shelling of residential areas followed by the systematic house-to-house slaughter of survivors, it’s probably safe to say the regime has lost its legitimacy. At this point what’s labeled unrest more closely resembles revolution, To date, in Syria, nearly 10,000 people have been killed, and yet unarmed civilians continue to take to the streets in their thousands at the risk of being picked off by snipers stationed on roof tops. Individual soldiers and even whole units of the army have joined the rebels. So have some high ranking officers and even a minister in the Assad government. It seems a shame that many more people will have to die before Bashar finally admits that his day at the top is over.
Yes, external meddling in the internal affairs of a country is normally to be deplored and resisted. The sovereignty argument has always made considerable sense because international neighbors, if bigger and stronger, tend to be greedy and aggressive. So it might be argued that China and Russia are taking the high road in respecting Syria’s sovereignty. However, the genocides and other brutalities of the twentieth century have given rise to an important sovereignty-trumping principle. It is known as the “responsibility to protect,” which means that rulers do not have carte blanche in terrorizing their own citizens. When external interference prevents internal massacre, it is not judged to be a classic invasion of sovereignty. The Assad regime, it would seem, has set itself up for some meddling, to put it mildly.
Unfortunately for the rebels, Syria is not Libya. Syria is a heavily populated country. It is well institutionalized and the regime controls all subordinate centers of power, including a very large army officered by members of the minority Alowite sect to which the Assads belong.
This brings us to the problem of minorities in Syria, most of whom, it's argued, continue to support the secular-minded Assad regime. Syrian Christians have no doubt noted that the Coptics in Egypt fared better under Mubarak than they seem to be doing now. Alowites may fear the sort of retalitory maltreatment that Sunnis are presently suffering in Iraq. The Asad regime may be brutal, but it is an equal opportunity oppressor, which is a grudging way of recognizing its relative tolerance for minorities. The U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights protects minorities from the tyrrany of the majority. As the aftermath of the Arab spring indicates, tolerance doesn't always come automatically with democracy.
Minorities' not unfounded fear of repression gives some altruistic cover to the Chinese and Russian tenderness toward the Assad regime, but other motives for their behavior are no doubt more persuasive. Neither country is governed by figures who find it convenient to respect the will of the people. Russia’s Vladimir Putin maintains his hold on power by manipulating elections, curbing the media, jailing opponents and breaking up demonstrations before they get too large and enthusiastic. China tolerates absolutely no debate or street activity at all. What’s more, both regimes rigorously suppress the political and cultural demands of their ethnic and religious minorities, especially those who happen to form majorities in ancestral territories with historic claims to independence. Like Homs, Chechnya was ravaged to keep it Russian; brutality keeps it Russian. Suppression of protest over cultural genocide in Tibet is so complete that an increasing number of monks have resorted to setting themslves aflame, although Tibetan Buddhism does not encourage such acts. Meanwhile, Beijing floods Tibet with Han Chinese in order to reduce Tibetans to a minority in what was once their own country. (The Soviets did the same in the Baltic states, which has led to many complications for the post-Communist governments in those countries.)
Freedom of speech? Freedom of assembly? Freedom to chose one’s leadership in free and fair elections? Syrians want these freedoms. If China and Russia acknowledge the validity of Syrians’ desires, how can they continue to deny them to the people within their own national boundaries?