In recent days, Western governments have loudly expressed outrage over the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian government for its crimes and calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But this reaction has obscured the symbolic nature of the resolution, and distracted attention from the unwillingness on the part of all members of the Security Council to intervene more directly in Syria. The root of Western outrage over the double-veto was the watered-down nature of the resolution, which, in a bid to broaden support, explicitly ruled out regime change and military action. Had the resolution passed, it would have demonstrated Syria's growing international isolation, but would have promised no consequences for non-compliance, and would have had no effect on Syrian regime behavior.
As it was, Russia chose to protect its client from condemnation, and in the process rebuked Western powers for their perceived overreach in interpreting UNSCR 1973 — which authorized military action against Libya last spring. The double-veto on Syria now joins the list of recent Russian and Chinese vetoes to protect pariah states and clients, including opposition to U.N. resolutions against Myanmar in 2007 and Zimbabwe in 2008. As distasteful and obviously self-serving as the protection these states extend to other authoritarian regimes is, it is one of the trade-offs for affirming the sovereignty of U.N. member states and the support for international peace and security this provides.
The fall of the Assad regime is as unwelcome to Russia and Iran as it is desired by many in the West.
The vetoed resolution referred approvingly to an Arab League plan for a "Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs." While this would be a very desirable and satisfactory outcome, there are already many worrisome signs that a post-Assad Syria will not be defined by pluralism and equality, but rather by majoritarianism and sectarianism. If Western governments take action that precipitates the collapse of the Syrian government, they will be partly responsible for putting Syria's minorities at risk and flooding Syria's neighbors with refugees.
During the debate over intervention in Libya, it was widely recognized that other abusive states, such as Syria, had patrons that Libya lacked, which was why intervention in Libya was politically feasible in the first place. Libya's strategic insignificance was the key to building international consensus to authorize action against Moammar Gadhafi. Syria is a very different case, as the fall of the Assad regime is as unwelcome to Russia and Iran as it is desired by many in the West.
This is not only a recipe for deadlock at the U.N., but also for a clash of interests between Assad's patrons and Assad's enemies that could lead to a larger crisis. As we hear more calls in the U.S. and Europe to support anti-regime forces, Western governments and Syria's Russian and Iranian patrons are on a path to make Syria's internal conflict into a proxy war. That seems likely to escalate and prolong the suffering of Syrians and to destabilize the region.
Western governments need to be careful not to trample on the principle of state sovereignty too often. Great power interference in the affairs of weaker and smaller neighbors will never entirely disappear, but Western governments should be wary of providing future legal and rhetorical justifications for intervention by illiberal and authoritarian states. The arguments that Western interventionists use today may come back to haunt them when authoritarian states use them to intimidate smaller neighbors and carve out spheres of influence. We saw a preview of how that can happen in 2008 during the Russian-Georgian war, which was partly a delayed reaction to and an imitation of Western intervention in Kosovo. We should not dismiss the possibility that weak pro-Western states may be subjected to similar treatment.
Sovereignty should not be a license for a government to abuse its people, and there are clear cases when states forfeit the protections of sovereignty. Even so, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states are the foundations of the modern international order, and they have contributed, however imperfectly, to keeping the international peace for decades. We weaken those foundations at our peril, and we jeopardize the small states that benefit most from the current international system.