I have zero sympathy for the Russian and Chinese governments who decided to block a U.N. Security Council resolution to amp up the pressure on the Assad regime in Syria. I’m not sure the resolution would have been decisive in ending the bloodshed there, but Marc Lynch made a decent case that it could have kept some hope alive for a kind of “pacted” regime transition, rather than a long and bloody civil war. I don’t know enough about what’s happening on the ground in Syria to speak intelligently as to what happens next; I suspect it will be very ugly.
Steve Walt argues that the precedent set in Libya, where international forces supposedly exceeded their mandate by engineering the overthrow of Qaddafi, is partly to blame for the current diplomatic impasse. Color me unconvinced. Yes, UNSC 1973′s explicit language called for civilian protection, and excluded foreign military occupation. Yes, the stated goals of the international mission were murky and ill-defined (which I noted at the time). In the end, though, did any member of the Security Council that supported the resolution really believe they weren’t authorizing an air campaign to end Qaddafi’s rule? Such a belief would seem to fly in the face of basic logic. Qaddafi’s forces weren’t driving on Benghazi out of some generalized desire to be violent. They were trying to put down an armed rebellion intent on regime change. It’s unclear to me how an air campaign designed to prevent the completion of that task would have any viable endgames beyond the defeat of one side or the other. Was NATO air power expected to enforce a stalemate along a particular front line and foment a geographic fracturing of Libya? What would a more “limited” intervention have actually looked like in practice? Intervening in a civil war – which is what was happening in Libya and what appears to be happening in Syria now – isn’t possible without, in some sense, taking sides in that war. That’s just the nature of the beast.
Now, the course of events in Libya might have given the Russians and the Chinese a bit more rhetorical ammunition to oppose a policy in Syria that they don’t like anyway. But the notion that both powers agreed to the Libyan resolution without realizing they were implicitly backing the Libyan rebels just seems incredible to me. For the record, I was deeply ambivalent about intervention in Libya. I remain so. I’m even more skeptical of unilateral intervention in Syria (even in “indirect” ways). The failure of the U.N. Security Council to take appropriate action further limits the range of options. I’m not convinced, though, that policy in Libya was a proximate cause of that failure.