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Foreign Policy Long Form

Why the United Nations Acted in Libya But Not Syria

Understanding
foreign intervention during the Arab Spring

Puzzle

            The Arab Spring marked an era of political and social turmoil across the Middle East that left the region, and world, changed forever. Between 2010 and 2012 a revolutionary wave of riots, demonstrations and protests broke out across thirteen Middle Eastern and African countries resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, collapsed governments and in some cases all out civil war. Two of the most pivotal events of the Arab Spring were the 2011 uprisings against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  

            Libya had been ripe for domestic turmoil since the inception of the Gaddafi regime. In 1969, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his military entourage called the Free Officers, deposed of the sitting government led by King Idris[1]. In what was a “bloodless coup”, Gaddafi abolished the monarchy and established the Libyan Arab Republic. However, Gaddafi’s consolidation and expansion of power sowed the seeds for what would ultimately become the Libyan Revolution of 2011. The Free Officers proclaimed themselves as the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and under the leadership of Gaddafi began purging the moderate and secular voices in the government.  Following his ascension to power, Gaddafi eliminated the Libyan constitution and began subtly instituting sharia law through the legal system. Alcohol was banned, night clubs and Christian churches were removed and the official language of all government documentation, road signs etc. became Arabic[2]. Dissent against government became illegal under government law and Gaddafi even asserted that if anyone was found guilty of forming a political party they would be executed[3]. Coupled with radical social and political reforms, the RCC banned trade unions, outlawed workers strikes, nationalized the oil industry and even went as far as to temporarily suspend newspaper circulation[4]. Gaddafi tactically placed his inner circle of friends and family members into all major sectors of the economy and government in order to retain a tight control over all the on-goings in Libya. A leaked US intelligence cable later observed of Libya’s economy that it was “a kleptocracy in which the government – either the Gaddafi family itself or its close political allies – has a direct stake in anything worth buying, selling or owning”[5].

By the mid-1980’s, Libya’s oil sector began plunging in revenues from $21 billion annually to $5.4 billion – a fourth of its size[6]. As a result, internal dissent that had been brewing in Libya for years against Gaddafi’s regime began to ramp up both in scope and intensity.  Gaddafi in response created the Ministry for Mass Mobilization and Revolutionary Leadership to restrict their communications and planning and leading to hundreds being taken as political prisoners. Between 2009 and 2011, the Freedom Press Index had actually rated Libya the most censored state in both the Middle East and North Africa[7].  A number of failed assassination attempts against Gaddafi became symptomatic of the popular opinion against Gaddafi as food prices began to skyrocket, unemployment surged and political repression was at an all-time high[8].

As the Arab Spring unfolded in Tunisia in January 2011, Gaddafi began to fear that revolutionary fever would begin to spill into his borders and tried implementing preventative measures – subsidizing food costs, releasing prisoners etc[9]. His attempts, however, were to no avail. Revolutionaries seized this opportunity to organize the decade’s long dissatisfaction against the Gaddafi regime and initiated mass protests across the country. Social media played a critical role in this organization as location, dates and times broadcasted across the internet resulted in massive protests not only in the capitol but in all surrounding cities. On February 17th, protestors organized a “Day of Rage” across the cities of Benghazi, Tripoli, Ajdabiya, Derna, Zintan and Bayda resulting in Libyan security forces firing live ammunition into the crowds killing dozens of protestors, including those unarmed[10]. The National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed following the Day of Rage to consolidate the various groups pushing for regime change in Libya, thus marking the beginning of an all-out civil war for control of Libya.

 As the protests raged on, the government’s violent response continued to escalate. Gaddafi forces reportedly used “snipers, artillery, helicopter gunships, warplanes, anti-aircraft weaponry, and warships against protestors and funeral processions”[11]. In response to police forces surrendering and in some cases joining rebel forces, Gaddafi began to hire mercenaries from other African countries who began to publicly rape, mutilate, and execute captured fighters[12]. Amnesty International reported that Gaddafi forces went as far as targeting paramedics helping the injured, targeting ambulances and reported evidence of torture from prisoners released from prison sites[13].

The international community responded promptly to what it saw as violations of human rights in Libya. On March 17th, 2011 (one month after the Day of Rage), the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 to authorize international military intervention to resolve the violent civil war raging in Libya[14]. By invoking the United Nations “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, the international community was able to justify impeding Libya’s sovereignty for the sake of civilian protection. Resolution 1973 called for an immediate cease-fire, a no-fly zone over Libya’s airspace, an arms embargo with forcible inspection of all ships and planes that entered its sea and airports as well as a travel ban and asset freeze on Gaddafi and his inner circle. Within days, 19 countries in total mobilized against Libya to topple the Gaddafi regime. American and British naval forces fired over 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles along the border. The US led the air-bombing campaign with support from the French, British and Canadian air forces before passing control to NATO[15]. By the end of the summer, Gaddafi’s forces had retreated from most major cities and only had control over Tripoli. In August, Gaddafi’s forces surrendered at the Battle of Tripoli with rebel forces storming Gaddafi’s compound[16]. Muammar Gaddafi himself was not found and killed till October, but the Gaddafi regime had been toppled at the conclusion of this battle. When the dust had settled, it is estimated that approximately 30,000 Libyans were killed in the effort to remove Gaddafi[17].

A 3 hour flight away, events had transpired very similarly in Syria. In 1963, the government of President al-Quwatli was deposed in a bloodless military coup by Syrian Ba’athist officers, which included Captain Hafeez al-Assad, to form the Syrian Arab Republic[18]. The sitting government instated was led by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party, but another coup in 1966, this time led by then Defense Minister Hafeez al-Assad, over threw the traditional leaders of the Ba’ath Party and placed him as President[19].  The inception of the new Syrian state was tumultuous as it was embroiled in conflict in the region with Israel and Lebanon. The new Assad regime played a central role in the Yom Kippur War against Israel and the ensuing occupation of Lebanon which lasted until 2005[20]. Following the death of Hafeez al-Assad in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad assumed power. His ascension to power quickly put to rest promises for democratic reform in the country as Syria had essentially been ruled as a single-party state since Hafeez had come to power. The Assad family, like Gaddafi’s, retained a tight control over all the on-goings in Syria’s affairs by placing family members and friends in critical positions of power. This cronyism fueled discontent as Bashar’s younger brother Maher and brother in law Assef Shawkat who served as Ministers of Defense were known to target Sunni Muslims and Kurds by using their police powers to marginalize their cultural and language rights[21] Bashar had inspired hope for political reform, but security crackdowns began taking political activists who called for democratic elections prisoners. The state of human rights continued to deteriorate as public gatherings were banned, security forces were granted sweeping powers for detention and arrest and rampant censoring of the media[22]. These actions squashed any hope for governmental change and set in motion the discord that led to the 2011 uprising[23]. The situation in Syria worsened as time went on as socio-economic inequality increased sharply and by 2011 the country faced record high rates of unemployment, steep deterioration in the standard of living and sharp increase in food prices[24].

As revolutions took place in Tunisia, demonstrations in Syria broke out modestly. Assad too attempted to make concessions to the public to calm tensions to no avail – releasing political prisoners, cutting taxes, increasing job opportunities etc.[25]. As demonstrations against the government increased in size, the Syrian government began capturing and arresting tens of thousands of protestors, organizers and activists without warrant. Organizers even planned their own “Day of Rage” using social media that never bore fruition unfortunately due to these arrests. Security forces began cutting power, water supplies and phone lines to prevent activists from organizing. The Syrian Army began moving into cities like Daara, Homs and Baniyas – hot beds of revolutionary fever – and began blockading the cities. The overwhelming suppression of protests through violent means by the Assad government is what kept the escalation of demonstrations limited from March to the end of the summer while the revolutions raged on in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Reports began emerging of thousands being held in prison sites subject to torture, rape and execution. Human Rights Watch reported that bodies discovered “were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution”[26]. The conflict took on a new form in July after seven Syrian Army officers defected to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose sole purpose was to bring down the Assad regime – thus attempting to organize all the different opposition groups under one name. By September 2011, Syria was in full-fledged civil war as the FSA was engaged in active insurgency in multiple cities across Syria with the fiercest battles occurring in Homs and Idlib. By the end of 2011, following months of bloodshed between the government forces and the Free Syrian Army, approximately 10,000 Syrians had been killed with almost twice as many injured or imprisoned[27].

The international community’s reaction to the violence in Syria could be described as lacking at best. As violence continued to mount in the spring of 2011, the United Nations only issued statements condemning the violence and encouraging dialogue[28]. By the end of March, the UN established a commission to investigate human rights violations occurring[29]. In October (7 months after violent suppression of protests began), the United Nations Security Council attempted to pass a resolution condemning the Assad government and threatened sanctions if there was continued military action against protestors (no military plan to intervene), but it was vetoed by Russia and China[30]. The United States took unilateral action to impose sanctions on the Assad regime and banned imports, but it was not until it was revealed that that government had used chemical weapons against the opposition in 2013 that the United Nations took any concrete action which only entailed forcing Syria to surrender its chemical weapons[31].  To this day, there has been no approved international military intervention to halt the bloodshed between civilians and the government despite almost 200,000 Syrians being killed, evidence of torture, chemical weapons use and a litany of human rights violations[32]. Above all, 3 years since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

            The disparity in action, both in scope and timeliness, taken to address the Libyan Civil War of 2011 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011 is understandably confounding to the casual observer. The history of both of Libya and Syria, the path to revolution and the government response bear strikingly similar chords, yet how the international community responded to both of these crises remains staggeringly different. Why did the United Nations feel a responsibility to militarily intervene to protect civilians in Libya in their struggle against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, but has not invoked that same responsibility in the face of similar and potentially even more egregious atrocities occurring in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria?

Research Question

Why did the international community take decisive action to intervene in the 2011 Libyan Civil War but not in the 2011 Syrian Civil War?

Literature Review

            Scholars and analysts have also recognized this disparity in action by the United Nations with regards to Syria and Libya and have centered their research around the United Nations “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine.

            The concept of R2P emerged after the international community’s failure to prevent mass atrocities in Rwanda amongst other places in the 1990s. Its establishment was revolutionary to international politics in that it reconceptualized the relationship between sovereignty and human rights where for the first time sovereignty could not be considered an absolute right, but a responsibility it had to uphold. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty Report in 2001 outlined the three principle goals of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine: the responsibility to prevent a population from suffering serious harm, the responsibility to react if such harm occurs, and the responsibility to rebuild after an intervention[33]. If the host state was perpetuating “serious harm” to its population or was “unwilling or unable” to cease the violence, the international community would assume the responsibility to protect. “Serious harm” had been defined as actual or imminent “large scale loss of life” or “large scale ethnic cleansing”[34].

Military intervention as part of R2P was considered a measure under extenuating circumstances. The report outlined four scenarios in which military action was justified: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing[35]. It was no surprise that the military intervention clause drew the most criticism from members of the United Nations. Countries like Russia and China viewed this clause with suspicion, fearing that it was merely another tool of Western powers to use as a mask for pursuing other strategic military, political or economic objectives in a given region. To assuage fears of abuse of military power, the R2P laws were amended.  The decision to militarily intervene was placed solely within the hands of the United Nations Security Council, non-coercive means like diplomacy and humanitarian assistance would be the primary modes of action and the threshold to intervene was raised to not just a state being unwilling or unable to halt the violence, but a more difficult standard of “manifestly failing” to protect[36]. Following these changes, the R2P doctrine was adopted unanimously by UN member states at the 2005 conference.

As is, R2P is not a law, nor is it part of any international treaty or gained the status of customary international law. The Responsibility to Protect is more of a concept whose political endorsement by states signals a commitment to respond to humanitarian crises. However, it should be emphasized that this commitment is grounded in an ad-hoc fashion – there is no obligation to take action against humanitarian crises in every instance but rather the willingness to consider action on a case-by-case basis. This ambiguity, unfortunately for Syria, allows the international community to turn a blind eye to atrocities occurring if it does not deem intervention necessary based on its subjective determination of the situation on the ground.

Upon outbreak of violence in Libya, the United Nations Security Council acted swiftly and decisively. Within days of reports of violent crackdown on protestors, the Council sent a warning to Gaddafi condemning the violence and calling on his government to “meet its responsibility to protect its population”. Ten days after the Day of Rage, the Council adopted Resolution 1970 which explicitly referred to the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, saying that the Gaddafi regime was not upholding its responsibility to protect its citizens by both inflicting serious harm on them and being unable to cease the violence, thus they would be subject to arms embargos, travel restrictions etc. As the violence continued to escalate, the Council passed Resolution 1973 which created the legal basis to allow for military intervention for civilian protection purposes. It is important to note that the Security Council was able to pass this resolution with 10 affirmative votes and abstentions from China, Russia, Brazil, India and Germany. The notable abstentions included China and Russia who were suspected to certainly veto any proposal for military action. Observers claim this abstention from voting was far from an implicit endorsement of Resolution 1973, thus their ensuing rejection of measures to take action in Syria come as no surprise[37].

In the immediate aftermath of the resolution’s adoption, the divides between the members of the Security Council on how to approach the crisis in Libya became evident as Russia and China both openly expressed misgivings about the language and spirit of the resolution. China stated it had “serious difficulty with parts of the resolution” preferred to resolve “the current crisis … through peaceful means”[38].  Russia complained that it had received no answers to its questions about “how the no-fly zone would be enforced, what the rules of engagement would be and what limits on the use of force there would be” and warned against “unilateral military intervention under the pretext of protecting civilians”[39].

Despite this opposition, law professor Andrew Garwood-Growers argues that three factors forced the hand of the United Nations Security Council to take action. First, there was a clear and immediate threat to the civilian population in Libya. This had been crystallized by Gaddafi’s own statements including him saying that “officers have been deployed in all tribes and regions so that they can “purify all decisions from these cockroaches” and “any Libyan who takes arms against Libya will be executed”[40]. Second, there was a regional consensus for the need for external intervention. Gaddafi was massively unpopular in the Arab world and the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organization of the Islamic Conference all supported external military action and even explicitly called for the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya[41] – this made is especially easy for the Security Council to garner support to take action. Lastly, important defections from Gaddafi’s regime, including Libya’s Ambassador to the UN had called on the Security Council to take decisive action – thus placing further pressure on the international community. The combination of these events placed countries like Russia and China who opposed military action in a difficult position for fear of damaging their international reputation and thus these states “abstained because they believed that they could not legitimize inaction in the face of mass atrocities”[42]. The military intervention in Libya represented an unusual moment in history where strategic interests collided with humanitarian needs to allow the Security Council to take action as quickly as it did.   

In comparison to Libya, the Security Council certainly failed to quickly and decisively stem the violence in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Despite three attempts by the Security Council to pass even modest resolutions proposing non-forcible measures against the Assad regime, China and Russia vetoed these drafts every time. On October 4th, 2011 Russia and China vetoed a resolution condemning Assad’s government. The resolution would have threatened the Syrian government with targeted sanctions given continued military actions against protestors[43]. The second veto came on February 4th, 2012 which would have allowed UN military action in Syria to protect its citizens[44] and the final veto came in on July 19th, 2012 on a resolution that would’ve threatened to place economic sanctions on Syria for refusing to follow the terms of a peace plan the international community had endorsed in Geneva[45]. For international observers, the optimism surrounding the UNSC’s willingness to exercise its R2P powers to prevent civilian atrocities post-Libya seemed misplaced and naïve. These disagreements within the Security Council were grounded in how the two sides interpreted the situation on the ground. Instead of viewing the conflict in Syria as a repression of political protests for democratic reform, as it had in Libya, Russia and China viewed the violence as a “legitimate government response to attacks on state infrastructure by armed opposition groups”[46] and thus they saw the invocation of the R2P doctrine as unnecessary. However as the violence wore on and reports of torture and chemical weapons use surface, it is hard to believe that Russia and China continued to believe that Assad’s response to the opposition groups was in anyway legitimate or justified. Diplomats have tried to make sense of Russia and China’s seemingly night and day approaches to Libya and Syria given their tacit approval to take some sort of action in Libya versus rejecting resolutions simply condemning the Assad government. 

First, it is suspected that the failure to achieve political consensus from Russia and China may have been a form of blow-back against the way events had transpired in Libya with what Russia saw as abuses of military power when intervening in Libya. According to one Russian author, the “way the R2P and the UNSC mandate were abused during the Libyan operation has taught Russia and many other states a lesson, which they will not forget easily”[47]. Russia had always been opposed to regime change in Libya and saw the implementation of Resolution 1973 merely as an excuse for removing the Gaddafi regime – exactly what it feared Western powers would do when the R2P doctrine was first proposed. Secondly, the strategic and geopolitical factors surrounding intervention in Syria vis-a-vis its relationship with members of the Security Council were certainly more complicated than those in Libya – a reality this paper asserts is the central factor in preventing the UNSC from taking any action. But lastly, many observers found Russia and China’s rejection of taking any action in Syria as consistent with their position in Libya. Neither country ever explicitly approved military action in Libya since they had abstained from the vote, opting rather to pursue dialogue and negotiation as a way to resolve the conflict. These sentiments had not changed upon the outbreak of civil war in Syria – both countries maintained that they wanted a diplomatic solution to the violence and this time were willing to put their foot down on military action which they believe was abused in Libya.

For Russia and China apologists, they view inaction as ultimately competing visions with the West over intervention and the international order. The two countries have historically always been suspicious of the West’s strategy of “muscular humanitarianism”[48] as a civilian protection strategy and suggest that the action taken in Libya was the result of a perfect storm of events rather than a concrete movement of world powers to agree on a universal set of civilian protection measures. The lesson from Syria is that international military intervention to humanitarian crises, like in Libya, is likely to remain the exception in international politics, the political paralysis surrounding international consensus in Syria is more likely to be the norm.

 

 

Hypotheses and Unit of Analysis

Syria’s close economic and military relationship with Russia prevented the international community from taking military action against Assad’s regime like it could against Gaddafi’s.

            This paper argues that Bashar al-Assad’s relationship with Vladimir Putin acted as the principle barrier to any international action being taken to intervene in Syria. Rather than being based on principle for opposing humanitarian intervention or acting in retaliation for military action in Libya, this paper suspects that above all Russia had too much at stake in its economic and military relationship with Syria to risk upsetting and was able to stymie international discussion as a result. While China also vetoed UN action in Syria, Russia’s role was far more crucial in preventing action. China lacked the diplomatic clout to unilaterally oppose international action and recognized that without “the buffer and political protection provided by Russia, it would not be able to pursue a relatively ‘independent’ foreign policy or withstand pressure from US”[49].

            This paper presents an alternative hypothesis for why action was not taken Syria.

The United States and world powers preferred the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria over an unknown successor, possibly backed by a terrorist organization.  

The resistance to taking action in Syria may not have just been based in the inability to get the full support of the UN Security Council, but rather the fear of a vacuous Syria that would be overtaken by an even more brutal regime. An imperfect Assad regime may be preferable to a much more imperfect Hezbollah or Hamas controlled regime in Syria.

Variables and Operationalization of Concepts

The dependent variable (explanadum) is the degree of international intervention in both Libya and Syria

Intervention – Application of military, diplomatic or economic pressure from an external power(s) to initiate a change in behavior in the host nation

The independent variables (explanans) are the international alliances of Libya and Syria and the international community’s confidence in a replacement regime to overtake the host government

Alliances – the relationship between two or more states establishing a mutually understood security, trade or diplomatic arrangement with each other.

Confidence in replacement regime – do the organizations that seek the overthrow the host government have affiliations with terrorist organizations/anti-Western agendas?  Did these organizations use similar tactics (chemical weapons, torture, and execution) as the regime they were attempting to replace?

The basis for the first variable is explained in the previous section, but what would be considered a worse regime needs to be defined. A “worse regime” is likely one that had close connections with a terrorist organization and/or committed war/humanitarian crimes as part of its revolutionary agenda. Strong affiliation with a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, or Hezbollah likely entails a fundamentalist Islamist philosophy towards governance. Based on the Taliban rule in Pakistan and implementation of forms of sharia law in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Indonesia it has resulted in subjugation of women, child marriage, violence against individuals of different faiths, persecution of the LGBT community, restriction on education etc.  While it could be argued that many of these acts were already occurring in Assad’s regime at the margins, it certainly was not institutionalized in the law like it would be if a regime backed by one of these groups came to power. More so, this regime would openly oppose Western powers and would likely ramp up terrorist plots and missions against Western troops and attacks on our soil or our allies.

The addendum to what’s considered a “worse regime”, if they had committed war crimes as part of the fight for freedom, is meant to act as a litmus test for how this group would treat its own citizens if there were further domestic unrest after the inception of its rule. If this rebel group had also been using chemical weapons against the opposition and/or civilians or had carried out torture campaigns at prison sites etc, I believe it would not be any more fit to rule over the population it was attempting to liberate. If people began to call for regime change again, it is likely these same tactics would be used on demonstrators as they had been used previously. 

Casual Mechanism

            It’s difficult to establish definitive causality with the variables being explored here since they are qualitative in nature, but despite that we can still look into official statements from UN and Russian diplomats to determine how all of these various factors played out during the debates to consider intervention. We can establish causality as opposed to correlation effects for our variables by observing the timeline of bilateral relations between Syria and Russia in the months leading up to the outbreak of civil war and as the violence carried on in relation to when the United Nations began to try and initiate action against the Assad regime. If we can establish a pattern between defense or energy trades between Russia and Syria or platforms/policies they mutually support in multilateral regimes it is possible that the two are tied together – rather their alliance that intertwines their security interests and their economies strongly influenced Russia’s decision to veto any Security Council Resolution.

Findings

            First, I will try and disprove the alternative hypothesis that the fear of a worse regime overtaking al-Assad’s acted as deterrent to international action in Syria.  To determine if this is true, it’s important to ask if the Security Council expressed the same concerns before moving to topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya. After the Day of Rage in Libya, the National Transitional Council (NTC) had been formed and was poised to act as the de facto government – calling itself the “only legitimate body representing the people of Libya and the Libyan state”[50]. The leadership of the NTC was primarily made up of defectors from Gaddafi’s regime, even including some of the Free Officers who led the original coup in 1969 putting Gaddafi in power but also included educated elite like Libya’s premier lawyers and university professors[51].

Reports began emerging as the revolution raged on that members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group officially listed as a terrorist organization by Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, retained positions of power in the NTC[52]. Even more so, Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, a prominent member of Al-Qaeda assumed a senior position in the NTC[53]. This reality, however, did little to change the international community’s stance on intervening in Libya. When asked whether there are men inside the NTC that are affiliated with terrorist groups, a senior US defense official admitted, “Yeah, probably”[54]. Though it seemed abundantly clear that the regime that was poised to take over Muammar Gaddafi had explicit connections with terrorist organizations, it did not deter the international community from moving to remove Gaddafi. Drawing from this, it seems unlikely that members of the UN Security Council like Russia and China could credibly argue that their reservations about removing Assad drew from their fear that a terrorist backed regime would assume power.

            The Free Syrian Army had an even more troubled history with terrorist organizations with reports that it was explicitly cooperating with Al-Qaeda affiliates and was being armed by them[55] In spite of this the United States passed domestic legislation to begin moderately arming and supporting the FSA to topple Assad[56]. Russia and China had a different set of fears regarding the Free Syrian Army overtaking Assad’s government. According to Rajan Menon, a political science professor at CUNY, Russia in particular was worried not about an even more repressive Islamist regime taking over but that that regime would not maintain the economic relationship that it currently had with the Assad government[57]. The importance of Syria and Russia’s economic relationship was highlighted when Russian diplomats began saying that it was not married to keeping in Assad in power, but in keeping Syria stable[58]. Thus it became clear that Russia saw Assad as disposable, but saw him as their best bet to maintain their strategic interests in the region. Their interpretation of a “worse regime” was vastly different than the one this paper takes, while the new regime may have been worse for the people of Syria, Russia was more concerned about whether the new regime would be worse for them.  This leads into the crux of this paper – understanding the relationship between Russia and Syria and how that manifested itself in preventing international action in their civil war.

            The bilateral relationship between Syria and Russia dates back to 1946 before the declaration of an independent Syrian state from French rule where the USSR and Syria signed a secret agreement where the USSR agreed to help Syria in its formation of a national army[59]. This relationship was cemented in 1950 upon signing a non-aggression pact with Syria and quickly aided them during the Suez Crisis[60]. Since the signing of the non-aggression pact, Syria has considered Russia the “main source” of its political and military support in the region[61].

Russia’s relationship with the al-Assad family dates back 4 decades to Hafeez al-Assad. It was Hafeez who negotiated Syria’s first large trade agreement with Russia with a $2 billion arms deal in 1999[62]. Since that agreement, Russia has become the largest arms dealer to Syria. Their military relationship preceded this agreement as the Soviet Union had built a naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus in 1971 and has continually expanded it to increase Russia’s size and presence in Mediterranean waters. More so the Assad family has sent thousands of Syrian officers and military generals to study in Russia, resulting in marriages and mixed families that have tied the two countries together[63]. However, the modern Russia-Syria relationship is far from limited to military transfers – Russian industries have a substantial presence in Syria’s infrastructure, agriculture, telecommunications and above all energy. In 2010, Russian energy giants established a stronghold in the Syrian market. Russian natural gas company Stroitransgaz has begun working on Syria’s largest natural gas processing plant and is also involved in technical support for the construction of the Arab Gas Pipeline across the Middle East. Another Russian energy firm Taftnet began a partnership with the state owned Syrian Petroleum Company to pump Syrian oil and plans to spend over $12 million on exploring new wells.  As of 2010, Russia has an estimated value of $19.4 billion worth of investments in Syria, excluding a multitude of arms contracts worth almost $5 billion[64].

Based on this relationship alone, Russia’s hesitancy to approve military action to topple Syria’s standing government is unsurprising. Leading up to the violence, the inter-connectedness of the two economies grew exponentially – from 2007 to 2010 the value of Russian arms deals with Syria more than doubled from $2.1 billion to $4.7 billion[65]. At the onset of civil war breaking out in Syria, there were calls for Russia to cease its arm sales to the Assad government and its support for the regime. After refusal to do so, claiming to honor these business contracts, a senior Russian official remarked that Russia had lost $4 billion in Libyan arms and other contracts following the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime and thus with the “prospect of losing an equal amount in potential Syrian trade, Moscow has no other choice but to take a hard line” [66]. Rajan Menon notes that the overseas arms contracts are very important people to the Russians themselves. He argues that, “there have been significant cuts in the size of the Russian military budget relative to the Soviet period, so if you want to keep people employed in the military-industrial complex, you need exports of armaments.[67] The timing of these losses would be critical as Sarah Michaels, the chief Russia analyst at Oxford Analytic, points out that with Russia’s presidential election looming and factory workers’ votes up for grabs, Putin sees these arms sales as crucial to maintaining his reign[68]. The potential economic losses of an Assad collapse go far beyond arm sales and Russia knows this. According to Daniel Treisman, a Russia specialist at UCLA, the Kremlin is acutely aware that $20 billion in Russian industry investments in Syria are at stake and has made promises to these companies that their contracts would be honored[69], in a post-Assad state can it be sure they will? We can contrast this economic relationship with the one Russia had with Libya. While Gaddafi and Putin shared a close relationship due to their mutual opposition to Western policies, Russian industries never broke ground in Libya. Russian gas giant Gazprom had tried on multiple occasions to establish itself in North Africa, but Libyan oil companies refused to grant them access. Gazprom referred to Libya as a “closed market” and these entry barriers have acted as deterrents to other Russian industries interested in Libya[70] While Russia was able to secure lucrative arms contracts with Libya as it had with Syria, it could not do more. If it is true that one of Russia’s primary reasons for preventing international action is maintaining its economic relationships, then it clearly did not see its value in Libya to a sufficient degree to use its veto power in the UN Security Council.  

Even more at stake for Russia to support the Assad regime is its strategic foothold in its access to the Mediterranean. As mentioned above, Russia’s Tartus naval base in Syria is its only connection to this vital body of water and Assad’s fall would mean losing it. Numerous Russian officials and Putin himself have declared the base, and Syria, as critical to Moscow’s security strategy, with one even calling the country Russia’s “last foothold in the Middle East”[71] – something they explicitly never said about Libya. A month before vetoing the second UN resolution to take action in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry announced upcoming naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, which Russian officials described as “the biggest in Russian history” [72] This move was coupled with plans to expand its existing facilities at Tartus to be able to dock nuclear submarines so it can accommodate the Russian Navy’s flagship — the “Admiral Kuznetsov” aircraft carrier after 2012. While Russia did not give any indications that the exercises were related to the Syrian conflict, US analysts and Russian observers noted that the timing of the exercises and base expansion plans is a strong indication that Russia does not intend to back out of its support for Assad’s regime because it fears that an opposition government replacing Assad would likely try to strip away Russia’s rights to use Tartus[73].

Conclusions and Implications

            International politics is messy. As with any conflict, every country has different agendas, fears and goals. The Arab Spring will remain as a series of events that continually challenged world powers to understand their own global interests and its intersection with support for democracy and free protest.  Ultimately, Russia and China choosing to ignore and even perpetuate human rights violations in Syria, or anywhere for that matter, is not breaking news. What is interesting however is its willingness to do something (or not stop others) in Libya but virtually do the opposite in Syria. Libya and Syria share a virtually identical history as nations borne out of military coups, regimes establishing order through repression and dispelling calls for democratic reform through violence and inhumane tactics. This paper explores the tension in how the international community responded to these two different crises and unveiled a host of economic and military interconnections with Russia and Syria, connections that it did not have as strongly with Libya, thus establishing a causal relationship to its vetoing of any international military action to replace Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The majority of the international community sees a regime torturing its citizens, using chemical weapons on its people and refusing to allow for democratic reform in Syria, but Russia sees a very different picture. Putin’s global interests do not align with the international community here – it sees billions of dollars in investments and arms contracts and a strategic naval base at stake if it were to support the collapse of Assad’s regime. Veto power in the UN Security council is capable of shaping how the entire international community is able to act/not act in the face of any crisis/conflict. By understanding the motivations behind Russia’s refusal to take action in the humanitarian crises in Syria, we can now have a better understanding of how the international community will react the next time events like this occur. If this case study of Russia’s reaction to the Syrian Civil War of 2011 is any indication, it is likely that self-interest will dictate future action rather than humanitarian purposes.

Works Cited


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[5] Ibid. 2

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[12] Ibid. 11

[13] Ibid. 11

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[36] Ibid. 33

[37] Ibid. 33

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[39] Ibid. 38

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[46] Ibid. 38

[47] Ibid 41

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[61] Ibid. 59

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[68] Ibid. 67

[69] Ibid. 67

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