What to Say to a Veto from the Comrades: Noe & Raad

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

Oct. 10 -- China and Russia put Arab commentators in a tough spot after exercising a rare double veto against a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria's regime for its violent crackdown on protests.

The immediate impulse of many in the Arab world was to side with the two countries against the European powers and the U.S., which led the effort to pass the resolution last week. As columnist Hazim Saghiyeh wrote in the Saudi-owned, London-based Al-Hayat daily, "Whenever Russia and China are mentioned together, a positive meaning emerges in the Arab conscience." The typical calculation is "what weakens America strengthens us, and what strengthens it weakens us."

In this case, however, it was difficult to defend the Chinese and Russian veto without seeming to abandon the cause of the Syrian people, an estimated 2,700 of whom have died and tens of thousands of whom are missing or in prison in the unrest so far.

Columnist Fouad Abu Hejleh, who writes for the Amman-based Al-Ghad daily, found a way through the minefield. Echoing the spirit of the draft resolution, he castigated the Syrian regime for its response to the protests and unrest. But, he wrote:

We welcome the double Russian-Chinese veto against an international resolution condemning the tyrannical regime in Damascus since it did not aim to protect the Syrian people but rather to pave the way for the invasion of Syria.

Although the proposed resolution did not call for foreign military intervention, as was the case with Libya, it demanded Syria cease using force against civilians. If Syria failed to comply, it said, the Security Council would consider "other options." Russia -- and some Arab commentators -- argued this, as well as the condemnation of the regime as the only instigator of violence, opened the way for consideration of punitive measures in the near future.

“We Arabs are particularly allergic to the veto,” Abu Hejleh wrote, referring to resentment over America's repeated use of its Security Council veto to stop resolutions critical of Israel. But, he added:

The anger we feel toward the crimes of the Syrian regime and its thugs should not make us lose our compass. It should not compel those who oppose locally-made oppression, injustice and tyranny to support the foreign occupation of Arab land.

"Oppression is the same regardless of who is carrying it out," Abu Hejleh wrote, recounting the loss of life and property in fighting in Iraq and Libya. He failed to acknowledge that Libyan rebels invited foreign military intervention to help overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Abu Hejleh concluded that it is better to let the Syrians themselves continue to challenge their regime rather than adding another layer of potential violence and unintended consequences, even if this means more deaths and a wholly uncertain ending.

In contrast, columnist Muwaffaq Matar was sharply critical of both China and Russia, arguing in the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat al-Jadidah:

For the traditional friends of the Syrian and Arab people to turn into obstinate opponents of liberation and the right of the Syrian people to democracy and a better life prompts us to dare wonder: Do Russia and China perceive the rule of the generals in Damascus as an occupation that allows them to maintain their interests in the region?

At the same time, Matar had similar criticism for the U.S.

The American administration recognizes that Israel is a state of occupation and that its government is violating international laws, yet it fights for it and defends it. So what is the difference?

Matar was especially critical of the U.S. for its threat to use its veto power in the Security Council against the request by the Palestinians for full UN membership.

The major powers are oppressing us, since one is oppressing the people in the northern part of the Levant, i.e. Syria, and the other is oppressing the people in its southern part, i.e. in Palestine.

However, Hazim Saghiyeh of Al-Hayat made a distinction between the U.S. and Europe on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. It has become clear, he wrote, that Russia and China are playing interest-based politics more than the Western powers are. Just because the U.S. made the "mistake" of brandishing its veto on the Palestine issue, he wrote, “is not a good enough reason for us to ally with Moscow and Beijing." To do so,  he argued, "would be committing a mistake against ourselves."

Instead of focusing on the big powers, a number of commentators explored the effects the veto might have on developments in Syria. The Security Council vote was largely viewed as a blow to the Syrian National Council, recently formed as a means of organizing opposition to the regime. However, Abdel-Beri Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi, wrote in his column that the veto “does not mean that the Syrian regime can rest,” since the Russians clarified that the regime should step aside if promised reforms are not forthcoming.

The Assad government, he added, should not be “reassured about the impossibility of foreign military intervention, a possibility that can enter from the windows and other ways. The easiest way would be the rearmament and support of militias, paving the way for an even bloodier civil war that would deplete both the Syrian regime and the uprising.”

As far as Arab commentators were concerned, the Sino-Russian veto may have bought Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad more time, but he seems to be running out of it nonetheless.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net or +1-212-205-0372.

-0- Oct/10/2011 22:01 GMT