No Surprise: Why Libya but not Syria

by Mark Kersten

Despite high rhetoric being flung across the Security Council yesterday, Russia and China’s vetoing of the European-drafted resolution condemning Syria’s brutal crackdown on civilians should come as no surprise.

There are a number of political-tuned reasons to explain why this Resolution failed. The first relates to the disappointment and anger expressed by China and Russia at the intervention in Libya. Both have largely been shut out of any post-Gaddafi economic windfall and it is quite clear that they did not want to see a repeat performance. Second, unlike the case of Libya, there is very little regional support for any intervention – legal, military, economic or political – in Syria. In Libya, the Arab League, along with key African states initially stood behind the momentum to stop Gaddafi. Even key Libyan diplomats supported Western intervention. This regional support created an irresistible opportunity to create a new partnership with the Arab League and regional states through a common military and political engagement. This has not been the case in Syria. On the contrary, while Russia’s and China’s vetoing has garnered the most attention, the abstention by Syria’s neighbour, Lebanon (which holds the presidency of the Security Council) was just as illuminating.

Apart from these key differences in the dynamics of the cases of Syria and Libya, there is another, more nuanced issue to consider. Why is it that anyone would, indeed, expect UN Security Council member states to successfully agree to condemn or sanction Syria? The answer seems to me to be that there is a prevalent belief that because it happened in Libya, it was feasible for it to happen in Syria. This, however, relies on seeing Libya as a moment of fundamental change, rather than as an outlier, in the practice of international politics.

The extent of upheaval caused by the ‘Arab Spring’ is beyond doubt. But many (myself included) translated the social and political change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and so on, into change in the behaviour of the world’s most powerful states. This didn’t appear to be a stretch: the citation of the Responsibility to Protect and the unanimously supported referral of Libya to the ICC were remarkable. Surely, this represented a new dawn in international politics and international justice!

The notion of the international community’s response to Libya representing a watershed moment in global politics, was further propelled by particular actors. The intervening coalition spoke, as would be expected, in their lofty rhetoric of humanitarian intervention. Human rights groups hailed the decision to intervene judicially and militarily as monumental. The ICC, particularly Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has framed the Libya referral as a new norm, something we could come to expect in similar situations. Ironically, Moreno-Ocampo was virtually silent on the case of Syria – surely similar with regards to the mandate of the Court to try those most responsible for crimes against humanity!

These actors wanted, for better or worse, to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people advocated that the Libyan intervention in the name of human rights and the duty to protect civilians was the new norm, then people would expect it to be the new norm and it could then become the new norm. This process of advocating an issue into an expectation and eventually into an accepted norm is powerful stuff and can have enormously positive effects. But it can also be dangerous when heightened expectations aren’t met. Propping mountains up on matchsticks is bound to fail.

Understood in this context, the failure of the Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Syria may be understood as an illustration of continuity in the machinations of international power-politics and not of fundamental change. Who, after all, would have been surprised that China and Russia vetoed such a resolution before February 2011?

While it is undoubtedly unfortunate and surely hypocritical, the response to the situation in Syria by Russia and China comes as no shock. The intervention in Libya may simply have been extraordinary in the original sense of the term – extra ordinary. What’s surprising about the vetoed Resolution isn’t that it was vetoed but that it came as a surprise to so many people.

10 Responses

  1. Maark – this is terrifically useful, thanks for getting it up so quickly and substantively.

  2. Thanks for the kind comment, Kenneth. I’m glad you found it useful and I very much appreciate your interest in my views. Cheers!

  3. If we go back to the point in the Iraq War when George Bush was sending the fleet into the Eastern Mediterranean and threatening action against Syria for allegedly harboring Saddam loyalists etc we should all remember how Iran and Syria reversed course and on one day declared they were allies and the next day Russia said it was backing Iran.  That quick shift stopped Bush in his tracks.

    Russia’s veto in that context of the Syria, Iran, Russia allied connection or symbiosis is not surprising.  Russia’s interest in Libya appears much less significant.

    For China, its long term strategy is to sap the US politically and keeping Syria and Iran as thorns for the US is in their strategic interest – as is keeping Pakistan in play. Without Russian support China would not want to be perceived so directly as challenging the US in Libya – so they abstain there.

    So the Russian and China vetoes on Syria are really no surprise and it should be no surprise that these countries act like states.   I for one had no illusions about some new nirvana arising.  Rather, the confluence of circumstances made the type of intervention in Libya possible.

    In the meantime, the people in the streets of Syria march on – in depressive overload, seeking to create affinity for a nascent state while the institutions of the government do the classic response of repression.  How about a moment to think about the courage of those folks resisting Assad in the streets as we talk high politics!  How about that dead 13 year old boy tortured by Assad’s people.

    Are we going to have a United for Peace resolution a la 1950 on the Syrian situation or – as is more the case – we will have fecklessness by the states in the front of Assad.  We shall see.


  4. Take Susan Rice’s statement (first three paragraphs – and substitute “We” for “several members” and “two members”. Then replace “Asad” with “Netanyatu.” That’s better.

  5. Mark,
    I agree that states are states and so the flip can be done that way.  Power relations without principle but with international law helping us to see who is departing from law.

  6. And I would add that the US criticism of Russia and China for their vetoes in the case of Syria is belied in its principled strength by the US threat of veto of the palestinian statehood application.

  7. I did see something on the crawl of msnbc this morning that the Palestinian Authority had passed the first hurdle for membership over at UNESCO.  So they appear to not be keeping all their eggs in the Sec Council/Gen Assembly game.

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