International Law

Does the Russian Veto of the Proposed UNSC Resolution on Syria Vindicate Scott Horton and Walter Russell Mead?

By Jack Goldsmith
Saturday, February 4, 2012, 3:58 PM

Russia and China today vetoed a proposed UNSC Resolution (stories here and here) that would have condemned the abuses in Syria, demanded their cessation, required Syria to give free rein to League of Arab States' institutions and Arab and international media, and called for an “an inclusive Syrian-led political process conducted in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation and extremism, and aimed at effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of Syria's people.”  The Resolution also would have called on the Syrian authorities “to cooperate fully with the League of Arab States' observer mission,” and it “stresse[d] the need for all to provide all necessary assistance to the mission in accordance with the League of Arab States' Protocol of 19 December 2011 and its decision of 22 January 2012.”

The main reason that Russia gave for its veto is that it felted duped by the expansive interpretations given to the March 2011 UNSCR Resolution on Libya.  That resolution authorized “all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”  NATO countries read this language very broadly to authorize aggressive military actions against Gadaffi’s forces everywhere in Libya and, in the end, to authorize regime change.  Once bitten, twice shy for the Russians, according to The Christian Science Monitor:

Russia in particular has been vocal in proclaiming that it felt tricked by UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya, which led to a sustained NATO bombing campaign in support of the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi.  Russia says it expected armed action would only be taken to protect the civilian population, and that the armed and coordinated support from NATO for the rebels, who won their war, went far beyond the UN mandate.

Determined to not allow that to happen again and concerned about the precedent that such actions set, Russia insisted that it would only support a resolution that explicitly ruled out regime change or eventual armed intervention (which was not in the cards in the current resolution). Russia also sought language in the resolution that would appear to put Assad's opponents, who appear to be developing a growing number of armed militias, on equal footing with the regime. Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Russia had asked for language demanding the "Syrian opposition must distance themselves from resistance groups using acts of violence," but was turned down, in explaining his country's veto.

Russia’s use of the Libya precedent as an excuse to veto intervention in Syria is precisely what Scott Horton and Walter Russell Mead predicted last year.  Horton was particularly prescient, describing the Libya operation as “bad news for the people of Damascus and Hama, as well as for advocates of the responsibility to protect.”  It remains true, as I said at the time, that it is hard “to know if [Horton] and Mead are right — is it really plausible that the U.N. would have authorized an intervention of Syria, even without the Libya precedent?”  We can never know the answer to that counterfactual, for Russia might have used the veto here even if the Libya intervention never occurred.  But at a minimum, the nexus between Libya and Syria that Horton and Mead predicted is clearer than ever.