As Syria slowly descends into civil war, the diplomatic crisis between Russia, China and the west has become a heated throwback to the days of the Cold War. Western diplomats have been expelled from Damascus and China and Russia’s political and military support of the Assad regime is showing no sign of bowing to immense political pressure from America, France and Britain.
Hillary Clinton and William Hague have readily criticised Russia and China’s foreign policy on Syria, warning of future isolation in the region if they fail to act constructively. Indeed, daily videos of brutalised civilians may make it hard to understand Russia and China’s support for the current government, but the history and importance of the relationship between these three states presents a far more complex picture than the one currently being painted.
Russia and Syria’s military partnership has been well documented throughout the crisis. Aside from the billion dollar weapons deals that has traditionally been enjoyed, Syria holds a key geographical significance for Russia.
The Syrian port of Tartus is home to Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean and has been a powerful tool in combating the construction of the USA’s controversial missile defence shield in Eastern Europe. Having recently strengthened their presence in the region, Moscow is reluctant to dispose of a ruling family that has been consistently helpful and loyal to their wishes.
Russia and China have not forgotten western failures
Moreover, Russia and Syria are important trading partners as Russia has heavily invested in Syrian infrastructure and developed the Arab Gas Pipeline into Syrian territory with the state owned natural gas giant Gazprom. A Western peacekeeping mission could easily dismantle Russian-Syrian trading ties if the wrong government were to emerge.
China’s relationship with Syria, however, outdates Russia’s by thousands of years. Their mutual mercantile respect dates back to the days of the Silk Road when Syrian markets were key stops for Chinese traders along the route. Modern day China boasts a huge share in the Arab state’s export market and is heavily involved in the Syrian oil industry. A successful Syrian revolution would be expensive for Chinese business and Beijing is keen to protect its commercial interests.
By far the most important point of contention between Russia, China and the west is the actual benefit of international peacekeeping missions. Often fickle, uninformed, and poorly organised peacekeeping operations usually become a chaotic series of blunders motivated by the USA’s need to export the American Dream and Britain’s unwavering desire to promote fairness.
Russia and China have not forgotten our failings in Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq and they readily cite these cases as justification for their stance.
Ultimately, serious questions must be asked about the motivation behind western criticism. Can Russia and China really be expected to promote a form of government they do not practice and betray a loyal and consistent friend whilst running the risk of destroying historic commercial links?
Notwithstanding the tragedy of the crisis, the reality of international relations is that a number of murdered civilians does not validate radical intervention. Much in the same way Britain enjoyed a close relationship with Gaddafi’s Libya and Mubarak’s Egypt, Russia and China have constructed a complex relationship with a murky dictatorship that will not be unravelled with ease.